In Focus

Chris Burden's All the Submarines of the United States of America

Chris Burden's sculptures, performances, and installations redefine stereotypical classifications of art. His work, often bound to his quest to understand violence and power, pushes the boundaries of subject matter and execution. In his early performance pieces, Burden sought the experience of violence in order to know its horror; in Shoot (1971), a friend shoots Burden in the arm with a rifle. Later installations are less direct, alluding to violence and power in order to awaken in the audience a sense of its reality. Burden turns the unimaginable and incomprehensible into the inescapably visual. All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987), a room-sized installation of 625 identical cardboard model submarines, all based on a typical World War II-era boat, epitomizes Burden's style. Serene in its beauty and shocking in its violent implications, the work transforms an entire gallery in the Museum, and in the process transforms the way the public experiences art.

The installation of this work turns an ordinary space into an underwater playground, allowing for a dynamic interaction between the visitor and art. The 625 submarines are suspended from the ceiling at different heights by shimmering vinyl threads. This creates an almost aquarium effect, whereby the gallery becomes an ocean and the pod of boats a school of fish. The 625 replica submarines in All the Submarines of the United States of America, created from nondescript cardboard, represent all of the actual submarines launched by the United States Navy since the SS1 in 1897 through the completion of this installation in 1987. Listed on the back wall of the gallery in black sans-serif type are the names of each of the submarines the Navy employs. A black binder placed at the entrance of the gallery further details the history of each submarine through documentary evidence.

The installation tackles the complex topic of the United States military; however, Burden's stance is overwhelmingly ambiguous. The artist neither celebrates nor censures the United States' naval power, and he strips the Museum, the curator, and even himself of such authority by demolishing the conventional viewing experience and allowing, even forcing, viewers to draw their own opinions based entirely on their personal experience of the work of art.

To understand All the Submarines of the United States of America and all of its subtle complexities, one must personally interact with the piece. The work requires the viewer to walk around it and examine it from all vantage points in order to perceive its density, restlessness, and neutrality. For Burden, themes of tremendous importance and weight such as national security, politics, warfare, and history are meant to be personally experienced. In his irritatingly neutral stance, Burden offers his audience a self-taught lesson in power and dominance.

Adapted from

Abigail Hoover, "Chris Burden's All the Submarines of the United States of America," in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years , ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), Pamphlet number 63.