On November 19, 1971, 25-year-old conceptual artist Chris Burden stood against a gallery wall while a marksman pointed a rifle at him from about 15 feet away. It looked as though a man were about to face his own execution. Seconds later, the shot rang out, and Burden, instantly pale, staggered forward, clutching his bleeding arm. He'd just become the first artist to get himself shot in the name of art. From there, Burden would go on to cement his reputation as a renegade "art martyr," performing a series of brutal, sadomasochistic performance pieces that recalled religious acts of bodily mortification, such as crucifying himself on a Volkswagen and crawling over broken glass.
Burden, released earlier this month, is a new documentary by directors Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey that aims to provide a psychological portrait of this mysterious artist, who, despite his explosive entree into the art world, eventually became an artist known for his delightful, family-friendly installation works, involving Erector Sets, Hot Wheels, and antique lamp posts, such as his large-scale installation Urban Light (2008). Located at the entrance of LACMA, the installation is a brilliant island of light that has since become one of the most photographed places in Los Angeles.
"It seemed like he'd gone a real journey from those quite extreme performances that put him in danger to these large scale, quite appealing sculptures that he was doing in his later career," Marrinan told me, over the phone. Connecting these two seemingly disparate artistic phases was what he and Dewey wanted to answer with their documentary.
Born in Boston, Burden endured a difficult early childhood. His father worked as an engineering consultant for MIT, and the family moved often, from Cambridge to China, Switzerland, France, and Italy. In the documentary, Burden's sister confesses that they were rather "misanthropic characters" who often felt alienated from the community at large. Burden perhaps internalized this perspective as an outsider; when he entered UCI's MFA program, he initially began as a sculptor (albeit one who rarely made physical objects).
At the time, Burden had been thinking conceptually about sculpture and what it was capable of doing. Unlike paintings, sculptures harnessed movement; you had to walk around a sculpture to see it. As a result, Burden's early sculptures were invitations for engagement—simple structures resembling exercise equipment—but viewers often mistook these forms as the sculptures themselves. And so Burden decided to take it a step further: What if he could create sculptures that were entirely kinetic, using his own body?
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Marrinan and Dewey said that Burden's early performance pieces were a natural extension of his concerns as a sculptor. For his 1971 UCI thesis, which he titled Five Day Locker Piece, Burden had himself tied up and stuffed into a 2x2x3 locker. Next came the iconic Shoot (1971), followed by Through the Night Softly (1973), in which he writhed over a gallery floor covered in crushed glass, wearing nothing but a bright red pair of briefs. A year later, he performed Trans-Fixed (1974), in which he nailed himself onto a revving Beetle.
These performance pieces were immediately polarizing. Some critics dismissed his antics as stunt work, while others—Marina Abramović and Vito Acconci among them—felt he was in the process of transforming the art world. For those he inspired, his site-specific, unreplicable, and uncollectible performance pieces were a direct reaction to the inflated art market of the 1970s and the violence of the Vietnam War. But for art critics like the late Brian Sewell, Burden's art lacked integrity and depth. "It only makes it a silly thing that people go to see," Sewell says in the documentary, comparing Burden to the stuntman Evel Knievel. But people still flocked to see these performances, whether they understood what Burden was doing or not.
"He creates artwork that really provokes a reaction in people in quite a visceral way," Marrinan said. "He was really willing to put everything on the line for the art he wanted to create. In the early days, that was sometimes his body, putting it in dangerous situations. Often he didn't know what the outcome would be."
This willingness infuses his early work with both tension and menace. Big Wheel (1979), for instance, was an active sculpture comprised of an enormous industrial wheel attached to an Italian motorcycle, whose attached rear wheel sent the larger metal wheel into spin. Mounted on a wood frame, the gigantic, whirring wheel spun so fast it sent tremors into the ground and threatened to fly off its mount, bulldozing people and property with it.
The documentary suggests that the violence of Burden's early work was perhaps influenced by his tumultuous childhood; namely, it was a way for him to investigate the limits of control. When Burden was 12, he was forced to undergo emergency surgery on his left foot, sans anesthetic, after a harrowing motorbike crash. The nine-month convalescence that followed would haunt him for years. The documentary includes footage of a 1970s interview with Burden, where he makes this connection for the first time. It's a stunning, revelatory moment, when he realizes that his motivations may be therapeutic. He looks off into the distance, suddenly pensive:
BURDEN: Now I've got control over it.
INTERVIEWER: Over what? Fate?
BURDEN: Sort of.
These performances, then, were controlled reenactments of his early suffering. His performances only seemed recklessly endangering; in actuality, Burden planned each one in excruciating detail. In Shoot, for instance, he practiced exhaustively at the gallery so the bullet would only graze his skin. And for Trans-Fixed, he did extensive research on the anatomy of the palm to determine which place would be least damaging to put a nail through.
"It's interesting that he connects it himself to that childhood experience of being confined to bed after that injury," Marrinan said. "He also did a piece called Bed in which he was in bed for several weeks in a museum. And there are definite parallels with that experience. I think it was important to him."
Art is a form of thinking, but it can often be a form of therapy as well. After the 80s, it seemed Burden had worked through whatever he needed to work through with regards to pain. "Once he had done the performance, he felt like he had answered the question he was searching for," explained Marrinan. "He wanted to move on to something new."
If the documentary seems otherwise sparse on psychoanalytic insight, it's likely Burden would have wanted it that way. Efforts in the past to delve into his private life were often bitterly rebuffed, and Marrinan and Dewey, faithful to their subject, seem equally eager to gloss over biographical details, such as the difficult period in the early 80s when Burden had succumbed to hard drugs and carrying around an Uzi. One wonders why the documentary does not mention in any depth the deaths of his younger brother and sister, or provide further analysis about his relationship with his father, who clearly played a huge role in Burden's development as an artist. It's difficult, for instance, not to read the sculpture What My Dad Gave Me (2008), a towering, 65-foot Erector Set skyscraper, as an homage to a towering father figure from whom Burden inherited an obsession for engineering, precision, and hard work.
Marrinan and Dewey insist that, biographical details notwithstanding, the glue that binds the two halves of Burden's career together are his enduring curiosity, "childlike enthusiasm," and determination. "His early works might give you a certain expectation about him like he might be a very wild person or something, but he was very thoughtful, very methodical," said Marrinan. "And a pretty sweet guy. But very committed to his art."
Burden died in 2015 while the documentary was still being filmed. As an example of Burden's private nature, Burden had not even told Dewey and Marrinan specifically that he was battling melanoma. After his passing, they had to forge on without him, piecing things together with interviews and archival footage. It's clear, through the interviews, that Burden made a tremendous impact on those around him, and perhaps he, too, was blithely aware of the mark he had left on art history. Burden's final installation, Ode to Santos Dumont, completed just before his death, features a white, 40-foot-long blimp that gently circles around the room, hovering just above its viewers, as though keeping watch.
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Burden is in theaters nationwide and available on demand.