Legendary conceptual artist Chris Burden with his Big Wheel sculpture at MOCA LA in 2010 (MoCA)

Chris Burden’s 1970 sculpture ‘The Big Wheel’ is currently at the Little Tokyo branch (‘the Geffen’) of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.  You can occasionally spot Stacie B. London (the exhibition production coordinator) firing up the work’s Benelli single, and revving the daylights out of the bike to spin up the Big Wheel.  Stacie also supervised the sculpture’s mechanical renovation, as the Benelli needed a light top end overhaul – not the usual museum work!  The piece consists of a huge cast iron flywheel from an 1800s coal mine, spun up to high speed by a motorcycle, in this case a 1968 Benelli 250cc, sold here in the US through the Montgomery Ward department store chain as the ‘Riverside’. The Benelli was Burden’s own motorcycle from the late 1960s, when he was beginning his art career.

Stacie B. London spinning up the Big Wheel with its attached Benelli single (MoCA)

Stacie is a vintage motorcycle enthusiast (with a ’69 BMW R60US), and enjoys giving the little bike some stick! Watch the video as she winds the little Benelli up to top gear/top revs, when over 70 mph reads on the speedo; that Big Wheel is moving pretty damn quick. Note its proximity to her back! After a noisy wind up, the motor is cut and the bike moved away from the madly spinning flywheel; the gigantic mass spins silently for hours…

The co-star of the show, purchased from Montgomery Wards… (Gretchen LeMaistre photo)

Chris Burden is a pioneering performance artist/sculptor/bodily harm artist, and probably best known for his shocking pieces of the early 1970s. In the notorious ‘Shoot’ from 1971, Burden had himself shot by an assistant with a rifle, at a distance of 15 feet. In ‘Transfixed’ from 1974, Burden was crucified onto a Volkswagen beetle (below), which was driven out of a garage on Speedway Avenue in Venice, CA, revved for two minutes, then driven back inside. His ‘747’ (below) saw him shooting at an airliner near LAX – an act which drew the attention of the FBI.

Chris Burden’s ‘Crucifiction’, in which he was nailed to a VW Beetle, which was backed out of a garage, revved furiously, then driven back in…

My favorite and his most canny work by far is ‘The Visitation’ of 1974, in which it was announced that Burden would perform a piece at the opening of a large group show of California artists in New York. Anticipating danger and outrage, an excited crowd jammed the gallery space. Burden sat in the basement, with his wife guarding a locked door. Only one visitor was allowed inside at a time; when the viewer entered, the door was locked behind. The assembled spectators grew frenzied in their attempts to see what was happening, crowding at the locked door and breaking windows to the basement in an attempt to get inside. Of course, Burden sat calmly talking with the 15 or so who actually saw him, while the anticipated drama was provided… by the audience.

Chris Burden performing his iconic ‘Shoot’

Here’s a video of Stacie B London bringing the ‘Big Wheel’ to life: