The guard counts our tickets at the door saying, “Okay, 1, 2, 3, in the back” and points us towards Metropolis II. I guess it isn’t hard to figure out that my kids and I are at LACMA to see the new Chris Burden sculpture.
On our way, Richard Serra’s huge Band sculpture grabs our attention. The kids can’t resist taking a quick run around the curved steel walls (well make that a quick walk around – no running in the galleries). But the anticipation of seeing Metropolis II’s speeding toy cars beckons us on.
It’s a Sunday morning in February (actually Super Bowl Sunday) about a month after the opening. The museum only allows 250 visitors in the gallery at a time, and it’s already at max capacity just 6 minutes after the start of the first run of the day. You can view the sculpture anytime the museum is open, but the cars run only three days a week (Fridays and weekends at scheduled intervals).
We step into the gallery. I’m surprised to see just as many adults as families with children. I quickly understand why. The sheer size of the sculpture combined with the frenetic motion of over 1,000 toy cars and trains is mesmerizing, no matter what age you are.
Here’s how it works. Magnetic force pulls the cars up the track; gravity brings them down; and resistance from curves in the track slow the cars down. The cars race along at the scale equivalent speed of 240 mph. About 100,000 cars circulate around the track every hour.
My boys (ages 7 & 9) join a group of children in front. And you know what strikes them first? The traffic. One of my boys says, “Look Mom, there’s traffic!” And what’s their favorite part of the sculpture? Watching the cars “crash.” For the record, there are no real pile-ups, but the cars do bump into each as they zoom down the track.
At first glance, Metropolis II has a kind of utopian feel. The cars and trains seem to run perfectly, almost like clockwork, through the sculpture’s unblemished city landscape — a striking mix of eclectic building materials like mosaic tiles and toy blocks. It’s a literal beehive of organized activity, buzzing noise and all.
But Chris Burden’s Metropolis II is more about urban reality, than utopia. The incessant noise of the cars clattering along the track creates an undertone of tension in the gallery. The noise, and the stop and go motion of the cars, work together to evoke the real, often stressful, energy of a 21st Century city.
In the video below, Chris Burden says that the days of free moving cars are about to end. The artist likens our current urban condition to turn of the century New York City with horse-drawn carriages, just before the dawn of the automobile. Burden is certain that something else is about to arrive. But until that day comes, he’s created something that really does capture Los Angeles’ car-infused urban experience, traffic and all.
Good to Know:
What about Metropolis I? Metropolis I was commissioned by a Japanese museum. The sculpture was only on view to the public for six months. It had 80 toy cars on a single track highway.
More facts about Metropolis II: A private collector, billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, owns Metropolis II. Berggruen loaned the sculpture to LACMA for at least 10 years. The sculpture has 1,100 toy cars, 1 dozen trains, 18 roadways and a 6 lane freeway. All the Hot Wheels-sized cars were custom-made by the artist.
Who is Chris Burden? Artist Chris Burden lives and works in Los Angeles. It took Burden four years to complete Metropolis II in his Topanga Canyon studio. He also created LACMA’s iconic Urban Light sculpture, made with over 200 L.A. lampposts, located in front of the museum along Wilshire Boulevard. Burden is also known for his work as a performance artist; most notably, for an art gallery performance where Burden was shot in the arm by a friend.