On the 10th of May 2015 the art world lost one of its most creative and daring artists to melanoma.
Chris Burden was an American artist who is perhaps most well known for his self-sacrificing performance works that paved the way for performance art, and indeed all of contemporary art today.
Burden studied first architecture and then sculpture at Pomona University and later The University of California, which is where he developed his interest in art that “forced the viewer to move”.
The sculptures that he was making at this time were large-scale objects that people could walk through, around, and on, making the viewers literally move. Later on in his studies he started working with performance, living inside a university locker for five days. This move from architectural works to more bodily works is where his work became truly captivating.
In his controversial work Shoot (1971), Burden was shot in the left shoulder at close-range by his assistant. This was carefully planned and orchestrated act that was witnessed by a few select people and documented by a grainy black and white film. It is unclear what this artwork signified in Burden’s mind, something which is no doubt entirely intentional.
Burden was interested in “the fine line between being too instructive, and letting people learn on their own.”, suggesting that his works are meant to be experienced and then ruminated upon, with no more didacticism from him.
Over in just a few seconds, many of his works leave the audience not only questioning what it is that they saw, but also why anyone would put themselves through such things. The works became “Beautiful in their hauntingness”.
These works were all experienced by an audience that did not know what was going to happen, and were as confused after as they were before. Burden was interested in the forced complicity of the viewers, placing his work halfway between theatre and art. The imagined curtain between the audience and the artist is removed, placing some of the responsibility for his actions in their hands. Should they stand by and watch him electrocute himself, or should they intervene? This uneasiness is what made his artworks so interesting, and impossible to forget.
Later on in his career, Burden moved away from performance art and back towards sculpture and instillation. The Flying Steamroller (1996) is a large scale kinetic artwork in which a steamroller is attached to a horizontal bar upon a central rotating pivot, counter-weighted by a cement block of almost equal weight. As the steamroller drives round in circles and gets faster, eventually the speed (and a hydraulic piston) lifts it off the ground and it rotates almost effortlessly. This work forces the viewer to ponder the horror and destruction that would ensue were the support to break, whilst simultaneously admiring its delicacy and balance.
Burden liked the idea of something with tremendous potential energy appearing tranquil and serene, something he also played with in his 1979 work, The Big Wheel, in which a flywheel was spun by the rotating of a motorbike wheel, and left to spin. If the wheel were to come off the wooden support it would plow through anything that stood in its way, and yet all of the time it didn’t it appeared graceful and methodical. A contained chaos.
His work was often dangerous, but it was never reckless. Seemingly spontaneous works had been methodically planned, and wherever necessary he consulted experts in the given fields in which he was working.
In 1972, Burden created his most shocking work TV Hijack, in which he literally hijacked a live TV broadcast and held a knife to the throat of the female presenter. Whilst threatening her life he also demanded that the live feed was not severed, or her head would be also, all the time threatening to force her to perform obscene acts.
This work steps one step further than simply shooting yourself in the arm. In this work, an unwitting participant is forced to become part of what no one but the artist at that time realized to be an artwork.
When witnessing something believed to be an artwork, the fear you experience is diluted as you know that the work is relatively safe. With Burden’s Flying Steamroller work for example, the work is initially intimidating, but subconsciously you know that this is an artwork and therefore has been safety tested and carefully planned. Even with Shoot, the viewers know that firstly their own lives are safe, but also that to some extent so is the artist’s.
Shocking artworks allow the viewer to experience safely the adrenaline one gets from fear, in a controlled and familiar environment. With TV Hijack, this ‘safe’ fear was removed in favor of inciting ‘real’ fear in all who witnessed it. No one but Burden knew that he had no real intention of slicing her throat, and for this reason the work is truly shocking.
Whatever the ethics of such a work are, an interesting and intense dialogue is created. And isn’t that the true purpose of art?
Burden was a fearless revolutionary, a pioneer of 'action' art, and someone that proved that art that shocks its audience can also have deeper meaning. He was always looking to the future, planning new works and inventing new technologies. His future is sadly now over at 69, but the legacy he leaves is immeasurable.
He was an artist, teacher, and inventor, and one without whom the world feels a little emptier.
In remembrance of Chris Burden, someone please shoot me in the shoulder and nail me to a car.
R.I.P Chris Burden
1946 - 2015