Los Angeles artist Chris Burden, who died on April 10 at age 69, is best known here for his 202 antique street lamps in front of LACMA—they’ve become an icon of the city. But one of his most significant, and misunderstood, works is The Other Vietnam Memorial. It’s a response to Maya Lin’s magnificent Vietnam memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC–“The Wall” that displays the names of every American killed in the Vietnam War—58,220 names. The Other Vietnam Memorial contains 3 million Vietnamese names etched into a dozen gigantic copper plates that stand 13 feet high, arranged like spokes on wheel.
The meaning is clear: If you’re going to commemorate the dead in the Vietnam War, you should remember not only the Americans who died but also the people the Americans killed. Of course, nations build war memorials to honor their own dead. Maya Lin’s memorial took a step back from that centuries-old tradition by steadfastly refusing any heroic representation of “the fallen.” The list of names etched into the black granite wall on the Mall, as she famously said, “speaks only of loss.” Chris Burden took that concept one giant step forward.
His piece was first shown in 1991 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and is owned now by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, a gift of the Lannan Foundation. It’s been exhibited “regularly” at the Chicago MCA, most recently in 2011, says Karla Loring, spokesman for the museum, and “very well received whenever we show it.” But prominent New York critics rejected the piece when it was shown there in 1991. Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times that “concept has been emphasized at the expense of form” in the piece, that the result was “earnest and preachy,” “art-as-tutorial, bent on making each viewer a better citizen.” She said it wasn’t clear why the 3 million Vietnamese names “had to be etched on copper; the impact of their great numbers would have been much the same had they been printed on paper covering the walls.” (But of course names on paper wouldn’t have the monumentality of names etched on giant copper plates.)
In Art in America, Holland Cotter declared that “[Once] you had read the explanatory tag at the entrance, you ‘got’ the piece, and it was hard to take it any further.” And in The Nation, Arthur Danto wrote, “It touches no emotions.”
Twenty-two years later, when The New Museum organized the first-ever Chris Burden retrospective in New York City, they omitted The Other Vietnam Memorial, even though they had five floors of space.
Part of what’s disturbing about the piece is what makes it so different from Maya Lin’s. Her memorial is deeply moving and cathartic; Chris Burden’s, as Christopher Knight wrote in the Los Angeles Times, is “obdurate and unemotional, exuding an aloofness one doesn’t expect from a memorializing sculpture.”
The United States of course did not keep track of the names of all the people it killed in Vietnam (and Cambodia and Laos), so there is no list, official or unofficial. How then to create “the other Vietnam memorial”? Chris Burden solved this problem by using a computer to generate 3 million Vietnamese names, variations of 4,000 names taken from Vietnamese phone books. That brought criticism, especially from Danto, who complained that the names were “generic, designating anyone and no one.” Cotter agreed that the fact that the names were computer-generated “took away some of the work’s emotional charge.” Danto went further, declaring that Burden’s piece “shows disrespect for the very persons it was meant to represent.”
It’s true that the names are not “real”–but that was precisely Burden’s point: no one knows the names of all the Vietnamese who were killed. It’s part of the cruelty and horror of that war. As Christopher Knight wrote at the time in the LA Times, Burden had intended to makes viewers feel uncomfortable about that fact. “The absence of an emotionally vivid, comfortably recognizable experience” was precisely the point of the piece, and not “a sign of the failure of the artist.”
After Burden’s death, LACMA announced a memorial exhibition featuring their holdings of his work. And the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, part of UCLA, where Burden taught, will exhibit their own holdings of his work. But no museum in his home town has ever shown The Other Vietnam Memorial, and it appears that none will do it now. The Chicago MCA should get the piece back on exhibit promptly, so that people can once again see this provocative, misunderstood, and magnificent work.