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Chris Burden.

In Art, Performance on May 11, 2015 at 6:56 am
‘Trans-fixed’, Venice, CA, 1974 Photograph © Chris Burden

‘Trans-fixed’, Venice, CA, 1974 Photograph © Chris Burden

Chris Burden is an art school staple. As you warily begin to ingratiate yourself into the world of modern and contemporary art, you soon realise that Burden is one of the world’s preliminary performers, perhaps because he’s done well to make sure you never, ever forget him. Whether you perceive his performances to be a destructive waste of time or whether you consider him a courageous genius, that’s up to you. Many people know him as ‘that bloke who kind of shot himself in the arm.’

Burden was born in Massachusetts in 1946. His early college works were sculptural, but early on he noted the potential for human interaction with the artworks. In reference to his untitled outdoor tunnel sculptures constructed out of plastic and steel, the artist claimed to have “realised that what I had made was not a piece of sculpture but something that had to be activated” (Horvitz 1976). It was the act of running through the 100 foot long tunnels that drew Burden towards processes more associated with physical activity than minimalist sculpture. And so a performance artist was born.

‘Shoot’, F Space, Santa Ana, California 1971

‘Shoot’, F Space, Santa Ana, California 1971

From then on Burden’s artistic explorations began to consist of sculptures that required physical triggers, thereby causing the viewer/performer (you essentially became both) to become an inherent aspect of the artwork. Then he went one step further with Five Day Locker Piece, where he confined himself to a 2’ x 2’ x 3’ studio locker for five consecutive days, apparently for reasons more to do with curiosity than anything else.

Burden’s work continued to embody these themes of tense and often claustrophobic anxiety, although in some cases he actually came to enjoy the isolation and deprivation. In Bed Piece (1972) he inhabited the corner of a room with only a bed and a portable toilet for him to spend 22 days of his time on. His visibility to the audience, however, prompted Burden to rethink his approach. He came up with White Light/White Heat (1975), in which he spent three weeks lying hidden on a raised platform in the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York. When discussing the piece with Robert Horvitz, Burden elucidated:

I have this fantasy, which may or may not be realised, that someone will come in off the street, not knowing my name, just doing a gallery tour, come in and see the platform and be able to feel that something’s amiss. There’d be something that would nag at them and they could maybe feel my presence…” (1975)

Not all of Burdens work was so contemplative and quiet. In what are perhaps his most famous performances, entitled Shoot (1971) and Trans-fixed (1974), we are offered much more abrupt and violent artworks. In the case of Shoot, the statement goes: “at 7:45 p.m. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me.” Ouch. This overtly aggressive performance impelled journalists and the public alike to consider him as either a crazed man or as an artist presenting a commentary on modern-day gun use and warfare. Whichever stance was taken, it certainly got people talking about him.

Burden following ‘Shoot’ 1971

Burden following ‘Shoot’ 1971

In Trans-fixed (pictured in the title image) Burden was literally nailed onto a Volkswagen in the manner of a crucifixion. Whilst his palms were pinned to the car, the vehicle was displayed for a matter of minutes before it was placed out of sight and Burden removed. Whilst this performance and Shoot did not appear to outwardly resemble his subtler, durational pieces, references to religious themes such as voluntary seclusion and trial by ordeal were consistent throughout his entire practice (Horvitz 1975).

Other performances by Burden involved the artist electrocuting himself, not to mention all of the cutting, drowning, disappearing, (yet more) shooting and fasting that went on. On later returning to a literal sculptural approach he created artworks such as Medusa’s Head (1990), the monstrousness of which renders it almost irresistible to look at.

‘Medusa’s Head’ 1990.  Plywood, steel, cement, rock, model railroad trains and tracks, 14’ in diameter.

‘Medusa’s Head’ 1990.
Plywood, steel, cement, rock, model railroad trains and tracks, 14’ in diameter.

In 2005 Burden revealed his project Ghost Ship, a yacht that is capable of navigating itself on the high seas. Whilst we may not have all been talking about it in our lunch-breaks, it is impressive that Burden had the momentum to keep his art practice up, especially when considering the fact that the prime question on everybody’s lips in 1971 was “will he even make it past 30?” Well, I”m glad he did.

Chris Burden passed away on 10th May 2015.