Hot Wheels and Angst in Metropolis II

Evan Moffitt


If you spend enough time with Metropolis II (2011), the din
starts to wear you down. Chris Burden’s massive kinetic sculpture, on view in
the Resnick Pavilion at LACMA since January, buzzes with the friction of 400,000
plastic wheels against 18 roadways and a six-lane freeway. Viewed from the side
or above from a catwalk, Metropolis II is a dense tangle of steel beams that
support constant motion. Like a packed metropolis, the sculpture is a reminder
of the modern city’s constant noise and activity, and the stress that accompany

As I circled Burden’s city, I found myself confronted by a
fantasy of architectural pastiches—an Erector Set Eiffel Tower in company with
a wood-block Taj Mahal—circled by roadways with Burden’s self-made Hot Wheels
cars, racing dangerously at 240 scale miles per hour. I was looking at a
child’s dream, designed and constructed with exacting detail. Burden’s
stylistic hodgepodge came off as masturbatory: the artist, as God, constructs a
perilous and intricate world in which he places postcard monuments from a toy

But then I ascended the stairs and looked down on Metropolis
II from the catwalk above. I noticed something that had before been nothing but
a head buoyed on a sea of tiny traffic—a young girl with her hair in pigtails
and goggles over her eyes, standing in the center of a toy interchange. She was
a technician, observing the freeway and other roadways to ensure no
mini-Ferraris crashed in a multi-lane pile-up. Because of this, Metropolis II
is only operated from Friday through Sunday at specific times in the afternoon,
and through those hours is observed carefully by a technician with eyes covered
and ears plugged. From above, the technician on duty looked tired yet vigilant,
her eyes darting above but inundated from the constant motion and incessant
scraping of plastic wheels. She was the modern city-dweller, neck-deep in a sea
of freeways and detached from the city’s unending mechanical buzz, unable to
hear her own thoughts and forced to react from instinct. Maybe it wasn’t
Burden’s endgame, but I thought the sculpture was a shell for a much more
interesting yolk—the human condition in the twentieth-century, confronted with
a rapidly increasing pace of life, over-stuffed with technological stimuli.
That, I think, is a lot more exciting than the world’s largest Hot Wheel set.