San Diego If any artist could be considered rough and tough enough to take on San Diego's city hall, it's probably big, bad Chris Burden. The famed L.A. performance artist and sculptor first made his name back in 1971 when, as a 25-year-old U.C. Irvine graduate student, he had a friend shoot him in the left arm with a .22 caliber rifle. Burden called the piece "Shoot." He ended up in the hospital -- along with a permanent place in the pantheon of guerrilla artists of the 1970s. Burden built on that fame by hanging himself upside down and strapping himself with electrodes to a gallery floor, where he could theoretically have been electrocuted if someone had only kicked over the bucket of water he had placed on the other side of the room. Burden later switched to doing in-your-face sculptures. One of them, called "Samson," included a 100-pound jack jammed up against a weight-bearing wall of a Seattle museum. The jack was in turn hooked up to a set of gears that cranked it up another notch each time a museumgoer entered the gallery. If enough visitors came through the turnstile, the theory went, the jack would have literally brought down the house.
Today Burden is a somewhat mellower 53-year-old, living on a sprawling estate in L.A.'s Topanga Canyon, which may account for why he decided to back down rather than fight when San Diego officials unceremoniously rejected one of his latest ideas: a cutting-edge water sculpture at the city's big new sewage plant, just east of Interstate 805 along Miramar Road. Last month, without any of the public fanfare he usually generates, Burden quietly agreed to take $10,000 as a settlement fee, about a fifth of the original commission promised him, and walked away from the project. But if Burden's retreat from San Diego's public-art scene was a discreet one, he is more than willing to heap abuse on the process that he says brought him to the city in the first place, and, in turn, he claims, humiliated and degraded him and his art. Worst of all, Burden says, the city wasted his time.
As Burden tells it, the city approached him two years ago with the idea of creating one of his signature works at the North City Water Reclamation Plant, where more than $200 million has been spent to take raw sewage and purify it enough to be used as irrigation water for golf-course lawns and other forms of plant life. The water does not, however, meet federal standards for drinking, and since the city hasn't found enough customers for the partially treated water, most of it is being pumped back through the city's old sewage-treatment plant on Point Loma and dumped at sea.
Burden says the city called him on the phone one day and asked him to participate in a design competition for some kind of sculpture at the plant. "I got a call from Gail Goldman, the head lady at the San Diego city arts thing," Burden says. "They were going to have a competition. I usually throw all these public-arts things in the trash, but I pulled this one out of the trash, I sent them some slides, and they unanimously voted not to go through the final process with three other contestants. They voted to go directly with me. And that's where I have my first problem, looking back on it, because they knew my work, they know it deals with heavy issues, and they wanted it. They say they want spicy food, but you put some taco sauce on it and they scream bloody murder."
According to Burden, once he was selected, the city gave him a broad mandate for concocting his sculpture. "Since it was a water plant, they wanted me to use water, and I was challenged by the idea." Burden says he spent months coming up with the design, which was initially well received by the city's arts gurus. "It was going to be a big pool, about 60 by 40 feet, 2 or 3 feet deep at one end, and an inch or two deep at the other." The pool was to be set into a hillside immediately adjacent to the reclamation plant's administration building.
Burden's plan was to fill the pool with water generated from the reclamation plant.
"Then, there were going to be these little floodgates on one end of the pool, and they would open every 20 minutes or an hour or so and let the water out so it would flood across the sidewalk in front of the administration building. "From there it would go down the sidewalk and over the curb and into the storm drains that were already in the street.
"I thought it would be an event," Burden adds wistfully. "School kids could go on a field trip and watch the forces of nature, a physics demonstration or something to that effect. You could see a bunch of five-year-olds going to see something like that and it making a memorable impression. That's what I was aiming for. A wall of water comes out of the floodgates and suddenly it's everywhere and then it's receding. You see that little three-inch wave hit the curb and splash up and hit the storm drains, like it was raining."
It didn't take long, though, for the city to rain on Burden's artistic vision. "They said they liked it, they were going to do it. I worked more and developed all the specs. I put plenty of time into it. The idea was to use the water from the plant and just let it run down the storm drains. It wouldn't have cost them anything extra. They were making plenty of the stuff already. But then they told me they'd discovered a little problem. They were looking into it, and it went back and forth when we realized they couldn't dump their water in the ocean."
It seemed, Burden says, that the city's arts experts had initially failed to consult the city's water and sewer experts. It turned out that the reclaimed water that Burden wanted to release into the storm drains, which ultimately empty into the Pacific, was not up to federal standards, even for storm-drain dumping.