Chris Burden and the limits of art.
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.
Arrayed in ranks outside the vast, tidy studio building were more than a hundred and forty handsomely restored antique lampposts, units of an ongoing sculptural project. (Many are intended for the grounds of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, when its present expansion is completed, in 2008.) Reinstallations of two major Burdens are now on view in Southern California: “A Tale of Two Cities” (1981), a room-filling fantasy tableau of miniature metropolises at war, incorporating about five thousand toys, at the Orange County Museum of Art, in Newport Beach; and, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Los Angeles, “Hell Gate” (1998), a twenty-eight-foot-long scale model, in Erector and Meccano pieces and wood, of the dramatic steel-and-concrete railroad bridge that crosses the Hell Gate segment of the East River, between Queens and Wards Island. Like most things by Burden, they are powerful works that deal ingeniously with aesthetics and ethics of power. You needn’t like them to be impressed.
“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.
.. except for the "Danger" pieces, I would agree that he is a pretty great artist.
I understand the links to conceptual art, etc .. but find most similar pieces . I cannot think of a word for it. if one is really anallytical about it, they fall in the realm of performance art. some artists document the performance and will show the resultant piece.
I guess I just may be more comfortable with the model of Christo or to a lesser extent someone like Claes Oldenburg
DOB: 8/23/46; Brownsville, Pennsylvania
"Before I cleaned up, I wouldn't leave too far from home unless I took a suitcase of dope and a suitcase with clothes in it. And I worried every time I crossed the state line for I was going to get busted, you know, by some of these little towns that you go through."
Basically, when I grew up as a kid, I grew up in a large family. And growing up in a large family, I didn't have any problems as a kid, at least that I knew about. And I was one of nine kids, and we lived in a farm. And I grew up pretty much when I became thirteen, I think it was, when we moved to the city of Buffalo, New York, and I started running around with different people, and then I started drinking and drugging.
I basically just started drinking, and I got in trouble and I went to prison. And I got out and I drank more, and I'd run around, and I did drugs, and it got real hard. Nothing basically happened to me real bad. I mean some bizarre things happened: getting in trouble, police arresting me, that stuff was all normal to me.
Until in 1981, I had to do something with my life because I was sick and tired of getting loaded and I was sick and tired of the pain that was -- I guess what you would say I was mentally bankrupt. I couldn't handle it. I didn't want to deal with it any more. I had a wife and a son and a lot of friends, but they were mostly -- they didn't understand that I had a problem with drugs and alcohol. But I sought help and I met a lady who was my therapist, who told me about recovery and I told her, "Well, I don't need that, you know." She told me about treatment, a treatment center, and I told her that I didn't need it.
And a few months later I went back and talked to her again about it. And I wanted to take this stress management class that they had, and told me that I had to be clean. I couldn't have any drugs or alcohol in my system when I took this class. And I told her that I couldn't do that because I didn't want to expose my family to me going through not taking drugs, or not drinking. So she sent me to a treatment center. And when I got out of treatment, I went to a twenty-one day treatment. In there I learned a lot. I learned a lot about alcoholism and addiction and about drugs, because at that time I was one of the first addicts that they had ever taken into this treatment center.
And there was a little old lady who worked there who was a counselor who talked there one night and said she was going to talk about drugs, because it made a lot of the other counselors and other people nervous when she talked about drugs and the addiction of drugs, and she told me that I never had to use drugs again. And didn't understand that, and I went out of treatment. I still didn't understand that. It took me a couple of years in recovery with other clean addicts to find out what she meant.
And I found out about going to meetings and getting a support group for me to stay clean -- to stay off drugs and alcohol and I did that. I went to a lot of meetings and then I found out that there was more to my life than these things. It's like I believe that I have a gift to communicate with different people, all kinds of people I can talk to, and people feel comfortable talking to me, and I got involved in all these committees and stuff.
And then, once I had to admit that I did these jobs and I do this stuff but I never learned how to read or write. But I had to admit that before I could do anything about it. And my son at the time, I think he was fourteen or thirteen years old, for my birthday he went to a place called the Foundation for Reading. And it's a place that teaches people how to read that don't -- adult people that don't know how to read. They got me this stuff and I started learning how to read and write. And if I hadn't quit drugs and alcohol, I wouldn't have never started to learn this stuff, because I had got through all my life, went through my life, getting by this stuff without knowing how to do it, or without people knowing that I had done it, or without people not knowing. Like they didn't know that I didn't know how to read. They thought I knew how to read.
I associated with people in the University of Pittsburgh and all over the place because I traveled around a lot and I had all kinds of friends. And being clean, quitting drugs and alcohol, made me able to clear my head enough to start learning this stuff.
And it's okay to be clean; it's okay to feel the emotions of being clean. We do feel those emotions and it gets hard at times. You think about how you want to get back to getting loaded and then you think about the fun I've had since I have been clean. I have been clean since `81 and I have met people all over the world. Being clean, I was able to get a passport to go to Europe.
And I have a couple of felonies, I was charged with three felonies, and they gave me a passport and let me go to other countries. And the things that I can do now and that I have learned to do and I am constantly learning how to read better. And I am going to go to work on getting my G.E.D. And it's like through the friends I made that are also recovering from the disease of addiction, and the support of the people that are in recovery that don't want to do drugs or don't want to do alcohol and they support me in my learning and stuff and it's been great for me.
I go all over and I support other people and I tell people that it's okay to quit; it's okay to get clean. And it's okay that you are going to feel a lot of emotional things. Sometimes you get clean and you don't, things don't stay the same, because you get clean, and sometimes you find out that the woman that you're living with, you don't -- she don't love you, or you don't love her, and you have to learn how to deal with that stuff without going back out and getting loaded. Because so many of us, we want every time, to us, we want to blame other people, or it's always somebody else's fault.
And what I have learned is that I can't blame anyone for what I'm doing or what I've done. It's like I've made that bed, I have to sleep in it. And it's okay because what I have learned also is that to deal with my life and go on and learn and I have learned through my friends in recovery and through all these things that I didn't know anything about before recovery -- and I have learned how to create a support group that when I am feeling bad that I can call someone else up and talk to them, because it's real important to share with another addict that's in recovery about the pain I'm feeling or the discomfort I'm feeling, because they know how I feel and they know how they felt when they went through that.
It's okay that in recovery we have to do that, we have to support one another. It's like one addict helping another addict is parallel. And it's true because through the support of other people I am able to stay clean off of drugs and alcohol now for seven years, and come December 2nd I'll have seven years clean, continuously off of drugs and alcohol. And it's been a good life for me because I have learned a lot. I've gone through divorces, I've gone through death, I've had my mother and uncle and my grandpa and my brother in law died, all in an eight day period. And I wanted to go get loaded real bad, and the support of the people that I know where I live at in Seattle, by them calling me up, and in New York, and them asking me if I was okay and giving me the support that it's okay to feel the pain and go through it and not use over it.
There is no reason, at least I believe, for no matter who comes, stays, goes or dies, there is no reason for me to go get loaded unless I want to go get loaded. And that's where the spiritual part of the program for me I guess comes in real strong. That I believe that my senior partner, as I understand him, will help me stay clean another day, as long as I am willing to turn my will and my life over to the care of my senior partner as I understand him.
And we talk about it, you know, and I go through changes in life. And I don't want to get loaded. I want to further myself in education. I want to learn more. And there are things that I have goals to do. It's like I want to learn more about this business of recovery because I believe that I can carry the message to other addicts who may not make it. I may be able to help them make it.
I believe that you have ministers to talk about different things and help people. I believe that by me talking about addiction and recovery I may be able to help another addict that is using drugs and wants help but don't know where to turn. And I do that a lot, I help the newcomer out. If a new person comes in hurting or sick, I try to help them through their recovery, and help them get established with other people that are staying clean.
And these things are real important. I believe that it's part of that support group that you set yourself up with, you get to know all these people, so that when you don't show up they want to know why you're not showing up, and they want to know why, what are you doing for yourself, or why aren't you being in touch with other people. Because sometimes we isolate ourselves and we have phobias and we don't want to talk about it because we think that it's wimpy, or it's none of their business, you know.
And that may be so, but we're talking about our life. And if we don't, and we give up a lot of our old ways by not asking for help or asking for support, we have to ask for help and we have to ask for support and talk about what's going on, you know. Talk about the emotional things that we go through. Talk about the feelings of fear, the feelings of anger, the feelings of resentment.
Because when an addict cleans up, at least for me, it was like taking my best friend away, my lover, my honey. It takes everything away from me that was negatives and it puts all these wonderful people in your life that are willing to help you stay clean and help you change things in your life. It's like recovery for me is making changes and being willing to make changes and talk about the things that I am afraid of, that if other people find out about . . . like it took me a long time in my life. And it took me about three or four years in my recovery, I think it was in my third year, I was getting ready to have my third year birthday, and I told people that I didn't know how to read. And that was hard to tell people that stuff.
Since then, once you tell that secret, those little secrets that we have that are what keeps us sick and keeps us in our addiction and keeps us running. It's like telling a little lie and then you have to remember it because you have to tell it the same way again. And in recovery you find out that if you're open and honest about yourself, it makes your recovery a whole lot easier and makes people easier to get to know you and help you in your recovery. Because we sometimes don't want help, and we do want help, but we are not willing to be honest with ourselves that we can't do it alone. And doing it alone is an addict in bad company. Because we think we can do it without help of others and we can't, because it's hard on us. We sometimes do it and it doesn’t work because we don't have no guidelines, no support group. We're isolated, people don't know us, people think we don't like them, and we have to reach out.