Essay 1: Evel Knievels of the Art World
Glenn R Phillips
In an extraordinary television segment broadcast in Los Angeles on the morning of Christmas Eve 1974, young talk show host Regis Philbin announced that he would be interviewing “The Evel Knievel of the Art World,” Chris Burden. No doubt expecting Burden would come ready with dazzling tales of being shot, starved, burned, drowned, crucified, and electrocuted—all in the name of art!—Philbin had reserved three full segments of the program for the interview. Instead of a posturing showman, however, Burden proved to be rather taciturn and intellectual, only saying, for instance, of Shoot—the 1971 work in which Burden had himself shot in the arm with a rifle—that the work was a sculpture, but it was only a sculpture during the fraction of a second that the bullet was passing through his arm.
The comparison between Burden and Knievel was one that had been derisively applied by Burden’s critics rather than cultivated by the artist, but Burden’s statement that Shoot was a sculpture as long as the bullet was passing through his arm might have made as much sense to an Evel Knievel fan as to a follower of Burden’s performance art. Looking back on the visual trappings of Knievel’s daredevil enterprise, one could view the star-spangled ramps and carefully arranged series of objects to be jumped as another type of sculpture, one that depends entirely on the potential of an airborne Knievel to exist fully as an image. Massive crowds would gather to watch Knievel perform a stunt that lasted no more than a few seconds, but the image potential of Knievel’s feats subverted their brevity. In fact, it was Knievel’s carefully constructed image that played the major role in his resonance with the American public. With a career whose rise coincided with the most tumultuous period of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, the Nixon administration, and a general period of pessimism in America, Knievel’s white leather suits, heroic capes, and visual detailing that consisted only of stars, stripes, the number 1, and the colors red, white, and blue tapped into a latent American nationalism that glorified risk of life against horrible odds.
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In a recent series of sculptures and videos, Tom Dale examines the iconography and mythology of Evel Knievel, performing a series of abstractions and alterations to Knievel imagery in order to distill its dense symbolism. Titled after the sites of Knievel’s famous stunts, sculptures such as The Cow Palace, Kings Island, and The Astrodome present towering scale models of stunt ramps, which Dale has painted according to Knievel’s basic decorative schemes. Dale has slightly altered the arrangements and juxtapositions of colors (for instance using blue stars instead of Knievel’s signature white ones), making the ramps less strictly bound to the iconography of the United States, and potentially allusive instead to any of the multitude of other countries incorporating those colors within their own national symbols. Additionally, Dale has twisted the ramps into shapes that would send riders off on impossible, deadly trajectories. The Cow Palace, for instance, torques both backwards and to the left in an arc whose recklessness can be viscerally felt by the viewer.
The torqued forms of Dale’s ramps are also meant to evoke the spiraling forms of Vladimir Tatlin’s model for the unbuilt Monument to the Third International, one of the prime examples of modernism as a channel for utopian social visions. Tatlin’s tower still conveys the exhilarating optimism of communism as an international movement, separated from the rather bloody armature upon which those ideals rested. This is a typical function of public monuments which, even when commemorating tragic or painful events, often serve to amplify abstract ideals and suppress nuance in favor of absolutes. It is this bluntness of symbolism that allows the meanings of public monuments or even abstract imagery such as flags and colors to pass from being benign indicators of pride or respect to being darker symbols of nationalist fervor. By presenting Knievel’s ramps as twisted forms that are allusive of public monuments, Dale points to the continuing potential for ideals to be misdirected and distorted—itself an appropriate subject for a monument in the confused and uncertain climate of today.
While it may at first seem far-fetched to conceive of Knievel’s jumps as their own sort of public monument, part of the oddity of Knievel’s spectacular rise to fame depends precisely on the degree to which his persona, activities, and visual trappings cut across American anxieties in the 1970s, and one finds in his career moments that coalesce as cathartic and often violent counterpoints to symbolic moments in American history. This was particularly true in Knievel’s performance at San Francisco’s Cow Palace on March 3, 1972. Having marketed himself as an antagonist to the black-clad biker gang Hells Angels, white-clad Knievel had recently been publicly urging youngsters to, unlike the Angels, lead a drug-free, crime-free life. The Angels felt smeared by the comparison, and a confrontation between Knievel and an Angels member at the Cow Palace led to a bloody riot in which the audience ganged up on the Angels. The event was in many ways a “correction” to the famous 1969 riot at nearby Altamont, in which a Hells Angel murdered an audience member during a Rolling Stones concert—an event that many saw as the symbolic end of the Sixties’ Woodstock-style optimism. Despite the riot, Knievel proceeded with his jump at the Cow Palace. The stunt was technically successful, but ruined by a landing area that was too short, resulting in a crash in which Knievel was thrown from and then run over by his own bike, breaking his back and keeping him from jumping for more than eighteen months afterwards.
In Kings Island, Dale creates a flag-flanked ramp that, judging by the direction of its single star, appears to have tipped completely forward, creating a new ramp that leads directly into the ground. In this impossible new position, the angle of the ramp essentially replicates the ramp for Knievel’s most famous and disastrous stunt, his September 8, 1974 attempt to jump a 1,600 foot expanse of Idaho’s Snake River Canyon in a custom-designed vehicle called the X-2 Skycycle. Snake River Canyon was itself a surrogate for the Grand Canyon, one of the great symbols of the American landscape, which Knievel had for years expressed a desire to jump—a request that the US Department of the Interior had firmly denied, leading Knievel to lease the tract of land at Snake River. The Skycycle, while described as a rocket-propelled motorcycle, was much more of a rocket than a motorcycle. It was designed by a former NASA engineer, and its nearly-vertical ramp could only be described as a launch pad. While the Skycycle successfully launched and achieved a speed of 350 miles per hour in its 2,000-foot trajectory over the canyon, a malfunction caused its parachute to deploy too soon, causing the vessel to be caught in the wind and drift back down into the canyon. The image of both the launch and the landing of the Skycycle could have only reminded the public of America’s own Apollo space program, in its last year of existence by 1974, with both its victories and its failures condensed into Knievel’s solo flight. At the very moment of Knievel’s launch, Russian cosmonauts were on American soil, training for the Apollo Soyuz Test Project, a joint US Soviet space mission, a hopeful symbol of cooperation between the two countries, and the final US space flight until the re-escalation of the Cold War in the 1980s. The notion of détente between the US and the Soviet Union was unfathomable for a certain breed Cold War patriot, yet the day before Knievel’s rocket flight, President Gerald Ford took the cosmonauts on a picnic, serving them an “American” meal of hot dogs and beer. The following day—the day of Knievel’s launch—Ford pardoned Richard Nixon of any crimes he may have committed while President of the United States. That evening, there were riots around Knievel’s launch site at Snake River Canyon. Concession booths were burned to the ground and ABC news had to abandon their gear as marauding bikers cut cables and smashed equipment. It was another moment in Knievel’s career in which a symbolic and patriotic stunt had transformed into a twisted version of mob justice.
In addition to his use of patriotic themes and imagery, Knievel cultivated an additional persona of the gladiator risking his life in a new style of coliseum. The imagery finds an origin in one of Knievel’s earliest largescale stunts: his attempt to jump the fountains at the roman-themed Caesar’s Palace casino in Las Vegas on New Year’s Eve 1967. The failed jump resulted in a near-fatal crash, and Knievel suffered multiple bone fractures and was comatose for twenty-nine days. The spectacular television footage of the Caesar’s crash skyrocketed Knievel to a new level of national fame. The gladiator theme melded perfectly with both the heroic and the bloodthirsty sides of patriotism, and it was featured prominently in the 1971 Hollywood biopic Evel Knievel, starring George Hamilton. The film opens on an empty coliseum, as a cavalcade of bikes announce the entrance of Knievel (played by Hamilton) who is driven in a flag-bedecked limousine behind them. Walking from the limo to his red white and blue Harley, Knievel begins to reflect on his life as he prepares to make another big jump. Over the course of the film, Hamilton’s Knievel makes a number of comparisons to the gladiator, noting, for instance, that “A Roman general in the time of Caesar had the motto: If it is possible, it is done. If it is impossible, it will be done.”
In The Last Gladiator in the New Rome, Dale recuts footage from the Evel Knievel movie in order to highlight the nationalistic themes surrounding the Knievel image. Dale adds the sounds of motorcycles and roaring lions to the film’s opening scene in the coliseum, and, appropriating snippets from Hamilton’s monologue, he recasts the speech by inserting actual footage from Knievel’s career from both before and after the film, including the crash at Caesar’s Palace, the riot at the Cow Palace, and a test flight of the prototype X-1 Skycycle, all intercut with imagery of stadiums filled with Knievel’s expectant crowds. Over this footage, Hamilton’s Knievel proclaims “I get high on adrenaline, on terror—that’s right terror, not fear. I get high on victory—nothing like that kind of high.” Hamilton goes on to transform the previously-quoted words of the Roman general into a specific accolade of American patriotism: “It is part of the tradition and heritage of this country that the words fear and impossible do not exist. It is truly an honor.” Both Dale’s video and the film end with Knievel riding through the desert to the Grand Canyon, where a low-flying aerial shot simulates a launch across the great ravine.
 Susan Freudenheim, “The Artist as Canyon Jumper.” The Los Angeles Times, July 13, 2003. I-22