“The image of [Chris] Burden that unfortunately continues to resonate in the public mind is of a young man who had himself shot, electrocuted, impaled, cut, drowned, incarcerated and sequestered,” wrote curator Paul Schimmel in 1988 for a book celebrating the artist in the midst of his career.
Schimmel was protesting on behalf of the artist’s later, and less provocative, work, but undeniably, Burden’s early self-inflicting “danger” performances bore a kind of direct intellectual impact that was fundamental to the development of performance art. Take a piece like “Trans-Fixed” (1974), in which his palms were literally nailed, as if being crucified, to the back of a Volkswagen Beatle in a garage. A shocking act, its simplicity, energy, and referential iconography made it one of Burden’s most influential works.
The same holds true for “Shoot” (1971), a spontaneous performance piece held at the F-Space Gallery in which Burden was shot in the arm by an assistant so as to know what it felt like. Such an act may seem frivolous or naïve, but bringing visceral experience to the forefront of a metaphor-weary art world was subversive and groundbreaking in those days.
Burden was born in Boston in 1946. He studied art in college at Pomona in California, where he created minimalist environmental sculpture. He spent two years at in a grad program at University of California, Irvine with fellow artist Barbara T. Smith and others. He began to experiment with the ways the human body can be used in sculpture, or as the artwork itself, in order to re-engage his viewing audience. He began this period of his career by locking himself in a storage locker for five days with only water.
In a much more staid performance series in the mid-‘70s Burden bought commercial airtime on national television and created advertising spots featuring himself and selling nothing. On one, he broke down his taxable income as an artist. In other, he flashed the names of classical art masters like Michelangelo and Da Vinci, listing himself among them.
Across the last three decades, much of Burden’s work has been sculptural. Some of Burden’s non-performance art works include “B-Car,” 1976, a fully-functioning light-weight car he built himself; “The Reason for the Neutron Bomb,” 1979, an installation consisting of 50,000 nickels and 50,000 matches representing Soviet Union tanks; and, more recently, “Urban Light,” 2008, an outdoor installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art made of 202 restored antique street lamps. Today Burden lives in Los Angeles with his wife Nancy Rubins, also a multimedia artist.
In the years since his famously masochistic performances, he has proved curator Schimmel right by establishing a much fuller, varied career. But the early work was so transformative for the Performance Art Movement that there seems to be no shame in associating his name with his very daring young work.
By Patricio Maya