“It’s very ghostly. It’s very beautiful in that it moves fairly silently and it just seems to float,” says Katy Lucas, who's been late artist Chris Burden's studio manager for the past 25 years. Lucas is describing Burden’s “Ode to Santos Dumont," an operational, lighter-than-air dirigible which was about to take flight inside LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion. Propelled by a four-stroke motor, the piece is a delicately balanced, tethered airship which flies in a 60-foot circle.
Inspired by aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, Burden’s piece is a love letter to innovators and tinkerers. Lucas explains Burden’s fascination with Santos-Dumont: “He was considered the father of aviation in Europe and Brazil. Chris grew up in Europe, so I think that was a factor. And he just saw that Santos-Dumont was very versed in engineering, mechanics — he put it all together and Chris loves that in a person, that they can do that.”
Machinist John Biggs helped Burden design, fabricate and build the airship. At first, Biggs thought he’d only been commissioned to build a motor: "I was getting ready to leave and Chris is kind of like, 'Wait, wait, wait, wait.' And I’m like, 'What?'"
"'Well we’re done with phase one, now we’re on to phase two.' And I’m like, 'What? OK?' There was a photograph on the table across the way and it was one of their dogs, Wylie, sitting in the center of this erector set circle. And I’m like, ‘That kind of looks like it would be structure for a Zeppelin.’”
As it turned out, Burden had much bigger plans for the motor Biggs had put together. “And at that point Chris is kinda like, ‘I’m thinking of flying around Topanga Canyon.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, sign me up.’ So it just slowly progressed from there to this.”
Biggs describes "Ode to Santos Dumont" as "zen ethereal."
"It's the sweet spot. I mean, when it all works out, there’s just this one place where it hits the numbers and you’re just like, ‘Yeah, that’s so cool.’”
Katy Lucas says that while Burden was ill when the piece was finished in January, "He drove up and he saw it when it was all finalized and he was very, very, very pleased with it.”
As Burden’s airship embarked on its journey across the museum space under Biggs’s watchful eye, it was hard not to imagine it as a send-off for the late artist. "If you dream it, make it," Biggs declares. "And I think Chris really understood that. I mean, everybody as a child wants to fly — I always did."
"When I look at the piece, I can be on the front of it going like, 'Ahh,' like when you’re in the car and you’ve got your hand out and you’re riding the waves and you’re like, 'Oh, I’m a bird.' It gives you that uplifting sense of the wonder of life.”