Climate Changing: Rebuilding Wexner Castle

Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager

Mar 19, 2021

A wide view of the re-installation of Chris Burden's Wexner Castle onto the exterior of the Wexner Center for the Arts; preparator James-David Mericle can be seen working on the installation

The current exhibition Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions, and the Social Environment launched with a work outside the galleries, Chris Burden’s Wexner Castle (1990/2021), which can be experienced wherever one can see our iconic deconstructivist building. Commissioned by the center for the final show in its inaugural 1989–90 season, New Works for New Spaces: Into the Nineties, Burden’s installation visibly alters the exterior of architect Peter Eisenman’s design.

"The Chris Burden Estate is delighted to have Wexner Castle re-installed for curator Lucy Zimmerman's Climate Changing exhibition,” says Yayoi Shionoiri, Executive Director of the Chris Burden Estate. “Initially created in 1990, Burden's site-specific work interjects merlons and crenels—architectural elements that were often used in castles and fortresses—to reference the Armory that once stood at the site of Peter Eisenman's building. 2021 would have marked Burden's 75th birthday year, so the Estate is truly honored to have Burden's seminal work be revisited and re-installed during this commemorative year.”

In addition to referencing Ohio State’s Armory building, which was demolished in 1959 after a devastating fire the year before, Wexner Castle also illustrates, in a literal way, how artists might shape the institutions that present and support their work. This consideration is central to Climate Changing, through which Zimmerman, Associate Curator for the Wex, raises questions about the societal role and impact of artists and museums. Queries range from the philosophical (Is the museum a fortress or castle to protect cultural objects or is it a platform for producing new ones?) to the existential (What do artists and art institutions offer the world in times of crisis? Whom do museums serve?).

“I was interested in how restaging this now-historical work would resonate today, 30 years later,” Zimmerman notes in the gallery guide for Climate Changing. “How might this revisitation encourage new lines of inquiry?” 

Artist Chris Burden's initial sketch for the 1990 installation Wexner Castle

Chris Burden Wexner Castle, 1990/2021. Ink on paper 5 1/2 x 8 in. © Chris Burden/Licensed by The Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

[Image description: A sketch in pen of crenellations with the words "BATTLEMENT" and "PARAPET" written toward the center along with other notations]

In an interview for the debut of Wexner Castle in 1990, Burden was explicit in his intent, and in his initial response to Eisenman’s design.

“After I read about the building and [had] seen pictures of the old armory, I could see what the towers were supposed to represent—the echo of the armory,” said Burden. “By building towers but eliminating the crenellations, an iconic symbol of a building’s essential purpose as protective shelter, Eisenman is denying this function. Yet he would never leave the roof off a building or leave the glass out of the window panes. Either you go all the way, or you don’t do it at all.”

“The idea of the crenellations,” Burden explained, “is that they will look like they have always been part of the building. Or, maybe people will look at them and think, ‘Gee, they finally finished the towers.’”

To restage the work for Climate Changing, the structures that form the crenellations had to be fabricated from scratch, and they had to reflect Burden’s desire to change the center’s facade in a subtle yet dramatic fashion. Adding to the challenge was an unexpected delay. Climate Changing had originally been scheduled for presentation during the summer of 2020, but a shift in opening dates was required once Ohio State closed down campus in response to COVID-19. 

This task fell to Wex Senior Installation Designer Dave Dickas and his team. Factoring in the need for these pieces to be light but durable, Dickas had nearly three dozen crenellations fabricated locally from expanded polystyrene craft foam, which were then coated with fiberglass mesh and a thinset concrete, troweled on by hand.

Crenallations created for the reinstallation of Chris Burden's Wexner Castle mid-construction on the stage of Mershon Auditorium

Crenellations for Wexner Castle being constructed on the stage of Mershon Auditorium photo: Dave Dickas

[Image description: four large crenellation forms sit on wood boxes mid-construction on an otherwise empty stage, with cardboard lining the stage floor]

“In March 2019, we had been making some basic prototypes and we thought we were preparing for the installation of this work,” Dickas explains. “When things shut down, I managed to bring a few blocks home and continued to work on coating them. Eventually, we were able to continue with the fabrication, and [preparators Nick Stull, James-David Mericle] and I began to stage them and work on them in an empty Mershon Auditorium.”

While Burden’s intent was clear and his drawings of the initial concept were available for reference, the work’s final form was somewhat subject to interpretation. “We worked from photos from the previous installation and a few notes from the old paper files,” says Dickas. “There was not a lot of information to go on, and Lucy and I went back and forth about how many we should do, and where. Some of the original drawings showed varying locations.”

Wexner Center for the Arts preparators Dave Dickas and James-David Mericle stand on a mechanical lift, installing crenellations for Chris Burden's Wexner Castle onto the exterior of the center building

Dickas and Mericle installing Wexner Castle; photo: Lucy Zimmerman

[Image description: two men stand on a green mechanical lift, installing crenellations onto a parapet-like section of a postmodern building with deconstructed red brick sections]

After finalizing a diagram and taking a break from working on Wexner Castle to prepare for the opening of Fall 2020 exhibitions, Dickas’ team began to install the work in October. As he recalls, “We had mostly great weather, but it was very strange to have the campus empty. Logistically it made some things simpler for us with equipment and staging, but we had no curious onlookers.”

Because of limited activity on campus at the time, there wasn’t an official reveal once the work was completed, but visitors have taken notice, posting pictures and appreciative comments on social media about Burden’s response to Eisenman’s architecture.

For Zimmerman, “Burden’s work reminds me of the ongoing role of the artist as agitator and interventionist working both inside and outside of the museum.”

The Wexner Center for the Arts building with addition of Chris Burden's Wexner Castle to the exterior, seen in the foreground with a yellow sunrise sky and a construction crane seen in the background

Photo: Dave Dickas

[Image description: a postmodern building with deconstructed brick sections that include crenellations on its multi-tiered roof and white metal external scaffolding; to its right, a plaza dotted with trees; in the background, a hazy sunrise and construction crane]

Dickas, a Columbus native, adds, “I do remember seeing the original iteration of thought of the Wexner Center as brand new back then (It was!), and I liked that in those inaugural exhibitions, artists were asked to respond to Eisenman’s architecture. To this day, artists and curators that we work with continue to respond to it in so many different ways. It seems fitting to have [Wexner Castle] reinstalled in a group show at a time when we are again asking, what do we think of this place?”

“Also, so much of campus is being transformed again, at least right around the buildings in our area,” Dickas says, referencing the construction underway for a new campus arts hub at 15th and High. “Recreating Burden’s critique of the architecture—wanting it to more directly reference the crenellations of the former armory—feels a bit reflective while so many big buildings go up around us!”


Top of page: Mid-installation view, Chris Burden, Wexner Castle, 1990/2021. Addition of crenels and merlons to existing Peter Eisenman designed museum building. © Chris Burden/Licensed by The Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

[Image description: Exterior view of the top section of a postmodern building with deconstructed red brick sections that include crenellations on the top recalling a castle. The building has white scaffolding to the right, and a preparator can be seen installing one of the crenellations.]

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