by Peter Schjeldahl
An efficient test of where you stand on contemporary art is whether you are persuaded, or persuadable, that Chris Burden is a good artist. I think he’s pretty great. Burden is the guy who, on November 19, 1971, in Santa Ana, California, produced a classic, or an atrocity (both, to my mind), of conceptual art by getting shot. “Shoot” survives in desultory black-and-white photographs with this description: “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.” Why do such things? “I wanted to be taken seriously as an artist,” Burden explained, when I visited him recently at his studio in a brushy glen of Topanga Canyon, where he lives with his wife, the sculptor Nancy Rubins. “The models were Picasso and Duchamp. I was most interested in Duchamp.” Burden is a solidly fleshy, amicable man, given to arduous enthusiasms.
“Shoot” was one of a number of perfectly repellent performance pieces of the early nineteen-seventies in which Burden subjected himself to danger, thereby creating a double bind, for viewers, between the citizenly injunction to intervene in crises and the institutional taboo against touching art works. (Such, at any rate, was my analysis of the distinctive nausea that I felt in thinking of those things, which I avoided witnessing in person.) He spent five days in a small locker, with a bottle of water above and a bottle for urine below; slithered, nearly naked and with his hands held behind him, across fifty feet of broken glass in a parking lot; had his hands nailed to the roof of a Volkswagen; was kicked down a flight of stairs; and, on different occasions, incurred apparent risks of burning, drowning, and electrocution.
Usually performed for small audiences, these events became word-of-mouth sensations on a radically minded grapevine in art schools, new contemporary museums, and grant-funded alternative spaces—an emerging academy of the far out. Anti-commercial sentiments held sway in those circles, although not altogether heroically, given the concurrent slump in the art market and the flow of patronage from such sources as the National Endowment for the Arts. (Between 1974 and 1983, Burden received four N.E.A. grants.) Earthworks, executed in remote locations, were the conceptual art that came closest to being popular. They had in common with Burden’s performances the fact that almost nobody saw them, except by way of documentation. The avant-gardism of the time wasn’t only reliant on publicity; it was effectively about the mediums of information—specialized magazines, insider gossip—through which it became known. Burden strummed the network like a lyre.
Burden was born in Boston in 1946, to an engineer father and a mother who had a master’s degree in biology, and he grew up in France and Italy. At the age of twelve, on the island of Elba, he was badly hurt in a motor-scooter accident, and underwent an emergency operation on his left foot, without anesthesia. It was a formative experience, he said, as was a passion for photography, which he acquired during his long recuperation. He completed high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At Pomona College, in Claremont, California, he declared an architecture major and studied physics, but gravitated toward art, with a special interest in Dadaism. Burden’s master’s thesis, at the University of California, Irvine, in 1971—where his teachers included the doyen of space-and-light installations, Robert Irwin—was the five-day locker stint.
He was immediately taken very seriously, as the most extreme and enigmatic of provocateurs in a subculture that, in highly educated ways, reflected the political disarray of the nation during the seemingly eternal Vietnam War, and prefigured the swing-barrelled rage of punk. By 1977, he had created performance pieces in two dozen American and European cities. They constituted a theatre of passive-aggressive cruelty. For one, in 1972, in Newport Beach, he sat immobile in a chair, wearing dark glasses, facing two cushions and an inviting box of marijuana cigarettes. Visitors naturally assumed that he was watching them, but the insides of his glasses were painted black, and he refused to speak. He reported, in his record of the work, “Many people tried to talk to me, one assaulted me and one left sobbing hysterically.” Plainly, Burden was not in sympathy with his supposed community.
Burden’s most trenchantly significant work was “Doomed,” performed in April, 1975, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. He set a clock on a wall at midnight, and lay down on the floor under a leaning sheet of glass. Viewers came and went. Burden didn’t move. Inevitably, he soiled his pants. (“It was awful,” he recalled.) Forty-five hours and ten minutes passed. Then a young museum employee named Dennis O’Shea took it upon himself to place a container of water within Burden’s reach. The artist got up, smashed the clock with a hammer, and left. He never again undertook a public action that imperilled himself. It wouldn’t have made sense. “Doomed” unmasked the absurdity of the conventions by which, through assuming the role of viewers, we are both blocked and immunized from ethical responsibility. In O’Shea’s case, the situation was complicated by his duty to maintain the inviolability of art works. There should be a monument to him, somewhere, which would commemorate the final calling of the bluff of art as a law unto itself. (Would Burden have lain there until he died? “Probably not,” he said.) I have in mind Robert Rauschenberg’s famous intention “to act in the gap between” art and life. There isn’t any gap. Art is notional. There is always only life and death.
In pragmatic terms, art is a privileged zone of gratuitous activity, with boundaries maintained by the agreement of the vested authorities. Artists of the Duchampian sort delighted in effacing the boundaries, which, with increasingly avid complicity on the authorities’ part, kept being redrawn to corral the effacements. It was a silly game, in the end. Ultimate limits were discovered, most pointedly by Burden, whose influence on conceptual and installational artists, to this day, is immeasurable. He defined art, in an interview in 1975, as “a free spot in society, where you can do anything”—anything, he might have added, that society will let you do. (Dennis O’Shea wouldn’t let him die.) Context is all. The complexity of Burden’s attitude became clear in 2004, when he and Nancy Rubins resigned their longtime teaching positions at U.C.L.A. to protest the university’s decision not to expel a student who, in a class, had played Russian roulette with a fake but real-looking gun, then had left the room and set off a firecracker in the hall. In a university, Burden said, “there are rules of speech and decorum.” Some disputants in the controversy, which dragged on for months, accused him of hypocrisy. He insisted on a cardinal difference between an act performed in an art space for an audience that had been warned and one sprung on students in a classroom.
Since the late seventies, Burden has specialized in one-off wonders like “A Tale of Two Cities” (whose details yield a wealth of technological and social history) and insouciant engineering feats like “Hell Gate,” as well as technological stunts involving self-designed cars, boats, and laboratory equipment. (He reconstructed a primitive early television and a nineteenth-century apparatus for measuring the speed of light.) Some works have had political content, such as a chilling response to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial: three million Vietnamese names, symbolizing the native dead of that war, engraved on hinged copper panels. (Made in 1991, it belongs to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.) Others have been hoots: a rubber-band-powered model plane launched in the aisle of a Concorde in flight, to attain a ground speed of Mach 2.05 plus ten miles per hour. (Burden sells relics of such actions; in this instance, the little plane mounted in a glass case.) In his studio, he showed me a work in progress: parts of what will be a huge model city crisscrossed by roller-coasters of hundreds of track-racing toy cars. The cars will run continuously, until they wear out, at the equivalent, for their size, of well over a hundred miles an hour. (A smaller version, shown in 2004 in Kanazawa, Japan, provoked acute anxiety in its viewers, Burden remarked happily.) There is an inevitable slackness, conceptually, to these works, which colonize the “free spot” that Burden’s daring carved out. The history of the avant-garde comes down to this: a boyish gimcracker diverting us by diverting himself. Worse things have happened.