MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Performance artist and sculptor Chris Burden died last week of cancer. He was 69. Today, his final completed work opens to the public at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Hovering in LACMA's Resnick Pavilion Chris Burden's 40-foot-long airship, a bullet-shaped balloon filled with helium. Its handbuilt motor propels it around the gallery in a 60-foot-wide circle.
MICHAEL GOVAN: Amazing to see this floating, delicate object; the piece is super ethereal.
DEL BARCO: Michael Govan is the museum's director and CEO.
GOVAN: That kind of delicacy - the propeller spinning just enough to push it through the air, and even its slowness makes it that much more an object of meditation. You can really meditate on it as it goes in a circle.
DEL BARCO: Burden's creation is an ode to a lighter than air dirigible designed and built by Alberto Santos Dumont. The Brazilian-born inventor is considered an aviation pioneer. In 1901, two years before the Wright brothers' first flight, Santos Dumont sailed his hydrogen-filled balloon around the Eiffel Tower. Govan says Santos Dumont experimented for years and finally proved it possible to navigate through the air.
GOVAN: The idea that you try and fail and try and fail and have an imagination is very much Chris Burden the artist. I think he saw in Santos Dumont a bit of himself having ideas and an imagination and tenacity and also that kind of joy of achievement.
DEL BARCO: This is the same artist who started out using his own body for performance pieces, from walking across broken glass to being shot in the arm. Burden later became a sculptor, creating an installation of antique streetlamps that welcomes visitors to LACMA.
KATY LUCAS: He always had ideas. Some of them so crazy - crazy, wackadoodle ideas - but others, like, OK, that could work.
DEL BARCO: Katy Lucas was Chris Burden's assistant and studio manager. She says he always was collecting objects to use for his art - toy trains, lamps, engine parts.
LUCAS: He had a fantasy of building a zeppelin and sitting on the bottom of it and toodling around in Topanga in his zeppelin, cruising along. There goes Chris in his little zeppelin.
DEL BARCO: John Biggs is the machinist Burden hired to build the blimp, which took many attempts to realize. He recalls what Burden said once when the engine failed.
JOHN BIGGS: I was like, you know what? I'm sorry I wasted everybody's time, and he's like - he's like no, no, no. No, no, John, this is a journey. We're on a path, and I was like, oh, my God, somebody who finally gets it. It's getting there. It could be even more fun than actually being there.
DEL BARCO: Chris Burden's "Ode To Santos Dumont" will be on display at LACMA through June 21. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.