Born in 1946, the notorious Southern California Performance artist Chris Burden attended the University of California in Irvine during the height of the Vietnam War protest era. His first performance, Five-Day Locker Piece, was simple: he spent five days crammed into a two-foot by two-foot locker on the California campus. The locker directly above contained a five-gallon supply of water and the locker below was an empty five-gallon container. For five days he remained in that confined space with no food, probably in a most uncomfortable situation. This performance served as his MFA thesis show.
For perhaps his best-known performance (Shoot, 1972), the artist had a friend of his shoot him with a .22 rifle. Although the bullet was supposed to merely graze his bicep, when the gun went off he flinched just enough to put his arm into the bullet's path. This performance piece related most specifically to the war in Vietnam as well as the devastating string of political assassinations in the 1960s. Additionally, the piece played on the statistic that you could be shot at any time in America, and it would most likely be by someone you knew.
Burden insists these shocking simulations are carefully engineered and that he remains in control, however it's nearly impossible to avoid asking the question why? In a 1974 performance work, "Transfixed," the artist stretched his body along the roof of a Volkswagen Bug while a friend drove sterilized spikes through his hands anchoring him to the vehicle. The running car was then pushed out into the street where traffic was obstructed briefly. Once the nails were removed from Burden's hands they were displayed as "relics," revealing the religious overtones of the work. But why would an artist have himself crucified to a Volkswagen and risk permanent physical injury, arrest, or even death?
One must also ask why an artist would slither shirtless through broken glass on a busy Los Angeles street ("Through the Night Softly"), or risk electrocution more than once in pieces such as "Prelude to 220, or 110," where the artist lay strapped to the floor next to two buckets of water containing live 110 volt wires?
Put simply, his works are violence about violence. But more directly, his work forces viewers to question their passivity in response to violence. By confronting viewers with his life threatening and sensational performances Burden suggested that the public was becoming increasingly desensitized to violence. The exceedingly high-risk body works crafted by Chris Burden are a means of working through ideas, while attracting attention to the violence in our culture and the media, which seems to be in command of all it delivers.
Following a decade of his performance-based works, Chris Burden began to create large-scale installations and sculptures. Since he studied architecture previous to art, he began to incorporate this interest into his art. Like the performance pieces these works addressed issues of violence. However his inquiry was directed more specifically to the military and its weaponry rather than the media. Using toys and model kits purchased in hobby shops and craft stores he would assemble small towns at war complete with boats and tanks and various military devices. While these fantasy tableaux of suburban mayhem were often humorous and poked fun at the profession of architecture, they were also frightening habitats for a culture steeped in violence.
While many performance artists of the 1970s created works that were deeply disturbing and often offensive, none pushed the boundaries of fear to the extent of Chris Burden. Although following a stranger through the streets or photographically documenting a terminal illness played on the insecurities and emotions of viewers as involuntary participants, Chris Burden upped the ante by putting himself directly in harms way to provoke extreme discomfort in observers. His earliest works are so shocking and potentially self-destructive that many have questioned their value as art as well as his state of mind. Like the Evil Kineval of the art world, Chris Burden pushed the boundaries of what can be considered art, and provoked the public into fearing just how far an artist will go to express an idea.
According to Jessica Gelt, in the Los Angeles Times at the time of his death, in 2015, Burden was also working on a watermill next to Frank O. Gehry's aluminum tower at LUMA Arles, which remained uncompleted.
Page author: A.E. & C.F.