Dangerous Liaisons

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Shibboleth, Doris Salcedo, 2007 — Photo: Tate

I can’t believe that people are still managing to trip over that long crack that is Doris Salcedo’s temporary art installation in the floor of the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in London. But the completely ridiculous idea that Salcedo’s piece might actually be dangerous got me thinking about art works that really do have a little danger in them.

Chris Burden, of course, was famous for that kind of thing, with performance works like “Kick the Bucket” where he lay on the ground surrounded by live electrical wires and buckets of water that visitors were invited to kick over. (I guess none did.) And then there was that time he had himself shot in the arm for “Shot in the Arm”. Good name.

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The Big Wheel, Chris Burden, 1979 — Photo: Ronald Feldman Gallery

But Burden also produced at least one piece where the threat was to the viewer. Back in 1980 I tip-toed up to The Big Wheel, which consists of a motorcycle with its rear wheel pressed every two hours against a three-ton flywheel and revved. That’s enough to keep the wheel spinning at speeds up to 200 rpms. Touch that thing and you could lose a finger. So of course you need to. This is a work where the role of danger in its relation to desire requires no explanation.

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North, East, South, West, Michael Heizer, 1967-2002 — © Michael Heizer. Photo: Tom Vinetz.

At Dia:Beacon in Beacon, N.Y. you can contemplate the perils of Michael Heizer’s North. East, South, West — though from a safe distance. There’s a guided tour, over age eighteen only please, and they don’t let you drop over the edge of the four steel-sided holes that the piece consists of, the ones that sink to a depth of 20 feet. (As one of Heizer’s “negative sculptures” — a hole or channel in the ground — it’s plainly a precursor to Salcedo’s crack in the floor.) The element of danger here, and its real enough if you peer over the edge, seems related to Heizer’s ambition to tap into the sense of awe produced by ancient sculpture and monuments.

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Lincoln Kirstein Tower — Photo: Paul Warchol

I came across another dangerous work earlier this year at the compound that surrounds Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut — the Lincoln Kirstein Tower, an irregular concrete stairstep sculpture, 36 ft. tall, that was dedicated to Johnson’s old friend Kirstein, the all purpose aesthete who founded the New York City Ballet with George Balanchine. When Johnson still occupied the grounds visitors were encouraged to climb the tower, but most of them halted halfway. The blocks are barely big enough for your feet and don’t offer much in the way of handholds, and there’s no railings. You get up around 20 feet or so — about where I gave up — and find yourself standing in midair on some precipitous little ledge. (I was on a personal preview of the Glass House site; I suspect that now visitors may not be permitted to make that climb.) Here the danger might have to do with Kirstein’s lifelong personal daring — actually, he had manic episodes — and maybe also with the “stepping” of ballet.

But the Tower is also an outgrowth of Johnson’s concept of “safe danger” in architecture, mildly perilous passages like the stepping stones you navigate across the reflecting pool that separates the two halves of the interior courtyard in the Manhattan guesthouse he designed for Blanchette Rockefeller. But there the worst you might do is miss a stone and wet your Manolo Blahniks. Fall off the Kirstein Tower and you can break your neck. Think of it as a garden folly with edge.

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