DocWatch – ‘Burden’ – Shoot the Artist

Performance Art, The Prequel and Sequel, from Chris Burden


Dir. Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey, USA, 2016, 88 minutes (Magnolia)

Playing in New York at the Metrograph

There may be artists whom some of us want to shoot, but it was Chris Burden (1946-2015) who created a work of art by


If that isn’t going to earn notoriety for someone, what is?

Shoot Artist - Repeat As Desired

Shoot Artist – Repeat As Desired

If you watch the documentary Burden, which premiered a year ago at the Tribeca Film Festival, you’ll see that Burden was going to extremes before the shooting.

This is the young man who stuffed himself in a locker at the University of California at Irvine in 1971 and stayed there for five days, as part of his master’s thesis, with a jug above him for nourishment and a jug below for waste. He called the performance Five Day Locker Piece.

You’ll see that and a lot more in the doc by Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey that’s filled with archival footage – shocking then, some of it still unsettling now.

How did someone turn out this way? This is the question that is posed by most films about artists. Burden is an extreme case, not that you haven’t noticed. Not everyone who’s interested in art locks himself up in a tiny locker, or straps himself like a crucified martyr to a Volkswagen, or has someone shoot him. Think about it. Back then, when lots of the art students in California were on mind-altering substances, how could you rely on someone being able to aim a rifle with any accuracy. No surprise, when Burden suggested that he and shooter change places, the shooter declined.

So, as we see in the film, Burden becomes known as the Evel Knievel of the art world. Except that his art is about more than the moto-da-fe of going into the air on a motorcycle of a ramp and landing in one piece. Bear in mind that neither Burden nor Knievel always ended up in one piece. And this was before the critics were talking about deconstruction.

But consider the contemporary art market these days, where the can-you-top-this competition seems to be about three things – price, price and price.  It can make you nostalgic for the boyish immaturity of a young experimenter who can stretch his medium (himself) in increasingly challenging ways.

What New Yorkers and everyone else should notice is that Burden brings much of the American West to his work. I’m not talking about westerns and the Remington or Hollywood mythologies of cowboys and Indians, but about outdoor space, guns, libertarianism, and eccentric imaginative types hanging on the edge  in California. There isn’t much of an academic heritage to any of this, or an art heritage. If there is a history at all to the veins that Burden was exploring, it’s a parallel history to what was going on in NY or Europe. Parallel, not in the sense that anyone considered it equally important, but parallel in that it had a life of its own that never seemed to intersect with things going on in the East.

For a meditation (albeit kinetic) on Los Angeles, try Metropolis II, Burden’s ode to automotive motion. To get a taste of his satire, here are some commercials that Burden made and paid to run on commercial television.

To say that Chris Burden grew over decades is like saying that buildings by Frank Gehry (another Los Angeles artist) got bigger. I won’t be spoiling the doc’s ending if I say that the film culminates with the creation of Urban Light (2008) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a “grove” of restored antique (1920’s) lamp-posts on Wilshire Boulevard which became a place where people came to meet, or to propose marriage (it happens a lot), or to just to sit with their thoughts and emotions.

Urban Light and Two Members of Its Museum-Going Public

Urban Light and Two Members of Its Museum-Going Public

With one work, an artist solved a problem that LACMA had struggled with for decades. He brought people to the museum. And since Urban Light was accessible in courtyard 24 hours a day, it didn’t matter whether the museum was open or closed.

Burden know that the visitors to that space probably wouldn’t know who imagined and designed it. The man who became notorious, years before, for putting himself on a Volkswagen bug like Christ on the cross, didn’t care.

For insiders, it can still be seen as a monument to Chris Burden. For everyone else, it’s a monument to what art can achieve.


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