The New Museum smelled like gasoline, and I didn’t mind one bit. Before the public opening of Chris Burden’s exhibition “Extreme Measuresthe press got a preview of the work and the live performance of The Big Wheel.

Occupying all five floors of the museum, the exhibition marks the first expansive presentation of Burden’s groundbreaking works in performance, sculpture, and installation of the artist’s forty-year career. While many people may know Chris Burden for Shoot — an early performance in which the artist deliberately took a gun shot in his left arm by an assistant — the works presented offer a much more in-depth look at Burden’s radical approach to issues concerning the body, power, control, desire, and repression.

I tried to get to the essence of sculpture and to distill it to its purest form…. In the latter part of the 1970s, the focus of my investigation shifted from the internal to the external, and I proceeded to make objects that explore issues of power. This exploration centers on the dichotomy that power can be attractive, comforting, and beautiful and, simultaneously, frightening and ominous.

– Chris Burden

During our visit we got a chance to see The Big Wheel in action, a work in which a large cast-iron flywheel is powered by a 1968 Benelli 250cc motorcycle.

The Big Wheel is a kinetic sculpture in which the revving of a motorcycle engine sets a massive iron wheel in motion for a protracted two and a half hours, revealing the processes of energy transfer and storage. A sculpture rooted in ideas of performance, a medium that the artist radically explored in his earlier works of the 1970s, The Big Wheel epitomizes Burden’s fascination with modern machinery and 19th-century industry.

After a small crowd began to gather on the museum’s fourth floor, a man emerged from the stairwell, calmly made his way over to The Big Wheel and, after a few valiant attempts, was able to successfully start the motorcycle, causing it to turn its massive three-ton cast-iron wheel while gradually accelerating until at one point the entire gallery was engulfed with the sounds of a roaring engine and, naturally, the smell of gasoline.

The Big Wheel will be activated at 11:30am and 2:30am Wednesday through Sunday, and also at 6:30 pm on Thursdays.

“Chris Burden: Extreme Measures,” Oct 2 – Jan 12, New Museum, Lower East Side, NY

(Photos: Kyle Petreycik/ANIMALNewYork)