by Art Chantry:
chris burden embodies everything i love and hate about the fine art world. his work is sensational and violent and ‘destructo ‘- total BOY stuff. i love it to death. but, it’s also completely and utterly shallow sensationalistic petty painful HUBRIS. he often reminds me of those horrid jerks we all met in school who thought they were the world’s most important and talented ‘artists’ but were actually insane stupid asshole jerks. you know the type. we all do. he’s like a walking breathing cliche.
in a current fine art world full of ‘sensational shock value’ art like damien hirst, jeff koons, porn, ‘blood heads’, ‘piss christs’, bifurcated cows, rotting sharks in glass tanks, topiary, spin art paintings and diamond encrusted human skulls, chris burden’s work may seem a little ho-hum to us. we’re so innundated by shallow hubris and cheapshot shock value in our fine art world that his work may even seem quaint. but at the time he was doing it, NOBODY ELSE WAS.
this image is show you is a quick ‘before and after’ set of images from his early student-era ‘performance piece’ called “SHOOT!”. he arranged a small group of admirers in a gallery space, brought in his buddy (bruce) and a .22 calibre rifle. the ‘piece’ was simply bruce shooting chris burden in the arm. but, considering this was back in 1971 (!), it got noticed. fucking hippie artists. he thought it would be a light ‘flesh wound’ (like they say on TV), but he said it was like getting hit by a truck going 80 mph. he started to get sick and faint and had to get stitched up in a hospital (and fill out police reports). not only was this great ‘shock value’, it was also really really stupid.
burden went on to a lavish fabled career of things like “movie on the way down” – he had himself hung by his heels (nude) upside down and six feet above a hardwood floor. he held a movie camera to his eye and then had himself abruptly cut down. the resulting film of the impact was the finished piece. he split his lip (he’s lucky he didn’t break his neck).
another piece was called “trans-fixed”. he had himself nailed to back of a volkswagon (literally crucified) and wheeled out before a crowd. it didn’t last long (the VW wouldn’t start up) and he was quickly removed. i imagine it hurt somewhat. another was a performance where he assembled crowd outside and then pulled out a .45 automatic and started shooting at low flying passenger planes passing overhead (they were near an airport). he’s been bolted to metal floors and threatened with electrocution and even welded into metal gym lockers for a week.
his work was always always always physically dangerous and pompous and an “i dare you” sorta of thing. it was like a game of one-upsmanship. how far can you go and still live? my absolute favorite piece was an installation in a gallery called “white light/white heat”. imagine a darkened art gallery. the only light in the whole place is coming from above a triangular ledge constructed in a corner situated high up from view next to the ceiling. imagine being in a such a space all by yourself – dark, eerily lit and mysterious. then you begin to feel like you are not alone…
chris burden went ONTO this little hot brightly lit shelf (nude, of course) and STAYED THERE for 30 days. he never came down (don’t ask, i don’t know. imagine the stench.) this is like the creepiest art installation i’ve ever heard of. i didn’t actaully see it (of course. nobody really did), but just the IDEA of it is beyond the pale to me. yeesh! try to imagine being alone in that gallery and then realizing what was going on….
now, this sort of thing has been around the art world since time immemorial. people have done all sorts of bizarre and terrible things in the name of “ART”. one infamous guy actually started slicing off small pieces of himself and creating collages out of the flesh/blood/filthy gauze bandages/bone/etc. after he had sliced off his penis and most of his fingers and toes, he began on other parts. he soon died of blood loss and infection. after he croaked, they figured out he was nuts and he’s been sorta stricken from the permanent record ever since. but, for a while he was the hottest act in the fine art world circus. so, chris burden wasn’t first or even greatest.
burden had two pieces connected to the northwest (that i know about). one was an installation in the highly beloved and revered Henry Gallery on the university of washington campus. it was called “Samson.” his installation consisted of a simple turnstile connected to a massive gear device and huge wooden beam system mounted between the walls of the gallery entrance. as you walked into the gallery –
ugh the turnstile – it increased the pressure on the walls of the building a tiny increment. the goal was that if enough people actually entered the gallery the pressure exerted on the walls of the building would stress the structure until the entire thing collapsed in rubble. cool, eh? not enough viewed it, though. the Henry Gallery still stands today.
another piece of chris burden artwork proposed for seattle was never actually installed. it was proposed for the exterior of the robert venturi boondoggle called “the seattle art museum”. several artists were asked to submit concepts for public courtyard ‘art’. they ended up choosing a boronovsky “hammering man” (there are something like a dozen duplicates around the world. a small army). so, they really chickened out and went with a ‘safe as milk’ piece. but, chris burden’s proposal really took me back. he simply wanted to hang a big fishing boat from the roof in front of the entrance. try to imagine fresh young yuppified seattle smug arty matrons going for that idea. how gauche! it would deface the venturi ‘masterpiece’ (cough cough).
at first i didn’t get it at all. but as time went on, i began to think it was a brilliant slap in the face to the local fine art establishment. by simply taking a cliched part of seattle’s lowly economic history and hanging in front of the pompous silly badly-made venturi masturbation building was an assault on all the hoity-toity uppity smug crap that seattle holds so dear. the very though of it! an icky dirty stinky old fishing boat decorating our lovely good taste! he literally lifted his leg on the seattle arts community. he took the money and ran.
indeed, the thing i love about burden (even more than the boyish trendy violence) is the sneering insulting snide confrontation of his work. it’s as if he HATES the fine art world sSOMUCH, he can’t restrain himself from upsetting them whenever possible. even his work today seems to piss off everybody so much that he’s even managing to send shocks throughout the fine art fad of ‘shock value’. one of his recent ploys was to contract (at very high prices) pieces and installations and shows at galleries and museums – all paid upfront in advance. then he doesn’t deliver the work but instead hangs the contract on the wall. any lawsuits that ensue become part of the exhibit as well. can you think of a better slap in the face to art? banksy looks like a joke next to this guy….