Administrators Note: Last week I had interactions with two
students that reflect on the extremes of being an arts educator. Amazingly,
these two encounters occurred on the same day, within the span of one class
meeting. In the following post, the names have been changed to protect the
My teaching duties are coming to closure for the semester
and I was monitoring my students and talking with them about their final
projects in a classroom last week when I had an unexpected visitor. The door to
the classroom was partially open and a large, young black man appeared there,
stopping motionless for a moment. He had a quizzical expression on his face, as
he seemed to be remembering something.
“I think . . . did you . . . have you ever taught art theory
for University of Maryland, College Park?” he finally asked.
“Yes, I did,” I said.
“I knew it! I took your class! It was great!”
“Thank you!” I said.
As I walked over to him to shake his hand, I said, “Forgive
me if I don’t recall your name . . . but there were lots of students I taught at
“That’s okay . . . my name is Ode and you changed all our ideas
about art in that class. I remember when you took a chair . . . ” He reached
out and grabbed the back of a nearby chair, pulling it toward him. “And blew
our minds explaining what that chair meant.”
The young man had caught the attention of my students, I
noticed, as some of them were listening and watching us. Ode saw this and
turning, he addressed them now:
“If you ever have the chance, take Professor Boyd’s art
theory class . . . it will change your life!”
“You’ve made my day, Ode!”
We chatted for a while longer and I learned Ode had finished
his baccalaureate and gone on the take his MFA at Howard University. He was now
teaching, as an adjunct at this college, too. We talked a bit about the role of
an educator, the rewards and challenges of teaching. I recall telling Ode that
making connections with students like him was “empowering” for me and kept me
teaching all these years. But I also spoke about the “moments of despair” when
the frustration of teaching became impossible and students’ personal lives
interfered with their ability to engage the subject matter.
We parted after exchanging contact info and I returned to my
class and the duties at hand. Later, about 15 minutes before class ended, a
young black female student entered. She approached sheepishly and I could see
that she had been crying.
“Well, hello, K. Did you finish your project?” I asked.
“I . . . couldn’t finish . . . it’s been a difficult week
and I couldn’t . . . ” Her voice choked and she stopped speaking. She handed me
a crumpled paper. “This is as much as I could get done.”
I motioned for her to sit down, that we would talk after
After the last student had left, K was still sitting there,
waiting. I had looked over her project briefly and already knew it was
hopeless. K had already told me of her personal situation at home, sharing the
stress she was having with her immediate relatives and not being able to study
or work on her school assignments.
I walked to where she sat and addressed her:
“I’m very sorry that you weren’t able to finish your
project. I know that you’ve had a stressful semester and I wish things had been
easier for you.”
At this, she broke down, bent her head into her hands that
was now clutching a tissue and faint, wet, wrenching sobs were her only answer.
Her pain was palpable and desperately real. She couldn’t even respond to me,
instead, she slowly got up, collected her things, and left the room.
All I was left with was a sense of what this loss may have
meant for her. Her hopes for this class and, undoubtedly, for all of her
classes, were undone by these situations obviously within her control but out
of her experience. The opportunities for a successful semester were now lost to
I imagine that most professions do have these kinds of
extreme moments; moments of success and fulfillment, coupled with other moments
of failure and loss. But to have these kinds of experiences occur within a
couple of hours in one day was stunning. The act of teaching is a constantly evolving profession that strives to reach other people's hearts and minds with conveyable knowledge and a connection to life. It is a rewarding occupation,
but it can also be draining.
My brief encounter with a young man who took my
theory class nearly 10 years ago reminded me of “why” I teach: to engage
someone’s heart with the awe of existence and to excite someone’s mind with
speculation and cognition. But there are those other pedagogic encounters, rife
with despair not only for the student but for the teacher as well. It is during
those losses that I have a keen understanding that knowledge, or our attempt at
both knowing and conveying ideas, are resolutely vulnerable to the student’s
real, on-going life. And this makes it clear to me that life, and knowledge
itself, is both a relative and conditional experience. To continue teaching
effectively, one must develop the ability to function in these polarizing and
extreme moments of existence, to maintain humility in those rewards yet remain
strong through these failings.
At Chris Burden's "Extreme Measures" show one might be tempted to start at the ground floor and work your way up the five floors of artworks in a logical fashion. However, having done preliminary research, my plan of attack was to proceed directly to the 5th floor where I had discovered that documentation and video of his seminal Seventies' performance work would be on display. For if we seek comprehension of Burden's art practice we cannot deny the importance or the influence of his earlier, controversial actions, fraught as they were with theoretical, and often literal, threats of violence to the audience.
In his book on performance, Frazer Ward speculates on the relationship between Burden's most infamous performance piece, Shoot(1971), and minimalism. First, citing Donald Judd's notorious sole requirement for art, that it need only be "interesting," Ward writes that performance art like Shoot progressively superseded the object itself as what needed to be "interesting" so that Burden himself became the "passive" sculptural subject (object) that was shot. Thus, Ward speculates, like the gestalt theory espoused by Robert Morris, whose objects were so minimal that they "deflected viewers' attention onto their own experience," Burden's passivity became "an embodied extension (or exaggeration) of the passivity of minimalist objects."(1)
As "art speak" as all that sounds, and Ward lays out a strong case, there have been corroborating statements by Burden describing his performance as "sculpture." The obvious appeal of such theories is their transitional reduction of late 20th Century sculptural objects, rendered so minimally as to affect the viewer's experiential relationship to art, and the progression of artists winnowing their sculptural medium down to flesh and bone and intention.
It is one thing to equate the artist with the medium of art, as Modernism and its champions advanced the theory that artists would discover their expressive subjectivity only through the specificity of their objective mediums.(2) But Burden has seemingly leap-frogged all the Modernist strategy, while maintaining the enigma of a "bad boy" persona throughout his Seventies' actions, to land squarely in the 21st Century in a leanly developed practice well-seasoned in its maturation.
The implied, or in Shoot, actual violence of Burden's early performances, was for the most part subsumed within his ambivalence towards the audience; many of those performances were witnessed by only small, invited groups of Burden's friends. His uncertainty about the audience and all of its considerations - their size, position and proximity to or engagement with his physical presence - would be worked out in multiple combinations for the roughly 6 years of his watershed Seventies' pieces. This would culminate in 1979 with his complete physical removal from the "performance" proper. But before pursuing Burden's progression below (and on the remaining floors of the New Museum) there are revelations to ponder before leaving the 5th floor.
One relatively unknown piece, The Visitation (1974), is scantily documented in ring-binders with this single image:
By the time Burden did The Visitation his legend had grown to the extent that he obviously had decided to leverage his reputation for extreme performances to create what amounts to a dual audience experience; one experience for those that "got in" and another experience for those that did not. Burden was hidden away in a basement area of the exhibition space and only a single viewer at a time was admitted to discover him there and to experience what his performance would be. Here is how Robert Horvitz described it in Artforum:
"Burden had been invited to participate in a group show of
California artists at the college's art gallery, and an announcement that he
would be making his contribution at the opening attracted a large crowd.
Initially, only one person, the organizer of the show, knew what the
arrangements were, and when anyone at the opening asked about what was to
happen, he led them down to the basement, where they were met by Burden's wife,
who stood next to a locked door. The door led into a dirt-floored boiler-room
that was quite hot and pitch dark - except for a single ray of light that
extended from a crack between the top of the door and the door-frame, down the
length of a wall. Only one person was allowed beyond the door at a time. As
they entered the room, the door was shut and locked behind them. The beam of
light ended at an alcove between two massive pillars supporting the fireplace
upstairs. Burden was seated there, surrounded and faintly illuminated by
glowing embers. When he was discovered, he introduced himself and talked
casually with each visitor for as long as he or she wished.
About 15 people actually saw Burden. Their experience was
probably one of disorientation and trepidation as the door closed and locked
behind them, followed by relief that the encounter proved to be so painless and
intimate. But the effect on those left outside was overwhelming. Word of
Burden's presence downstairs had spread quickly and scores of people jammed the
space in front of the boiler-room door. Without any instructions to do so, the
few who did get to see him refused to say anything about what had happened to
them, thus fueling the crowd's fantasies. Windows in other parts of the
basement were broken by people clamoring to get in. The opening was totally
consumed by the piece. Capitalizing on the drawing power of his reputation, the
tension between the crowd's expectations and the strict limitations he placed
on their access to him gave the piece its spatial charge. The fabulous
spectacle that the crowd had come to expect from Burden, based on what they
knew about his past work, was indeed provided, but they turned out to be it."(3)
I want to focus on the multiple aspects that one might consider about The Visitation: anticipation, expectation, tension, anxiety and the unknown. As Horvitz noted, the anticipation of what the audience expected Burden might be doing down there in the basement, expectations suggested by his previous performances like Shoot, Through the Night Softly and Trans-Fixed, had in turn stoked their imagination and fueled a tension that Burden already skillfully used here in 1974, and would later maturely transform in his later sculptural work. The experience that the majority of The Visitation "audience" would have, that is those not among the 15 who experienced the "actual" piece, was the anxiety that they might not "get in" and if not they would never know what happened.
Burden would maneuver his legendary reputation into more traditional sculptural approaches in his later work. One of his investigations that survived the transition from "bad boy" to canonized Major Artist is this idea of anticipation and the public versus private dichotomy evidenced by some of Burden's more manipulative Seventies' acts. These connections are brilliantly displayed in Burden's most audience-satisfactory work, The Big Wheel (1979). Cited in the New Museum's press release as "marking the artist’s transition from performance to sculpture," The Big Wheel maintains a tentative hold on our anticipation as we wait for one of its scheduled "performances" 11 times weekly, crowding around its 8-foot massive presence. The enormity of this "sculpture" is off-set somewhat by a dinky Italian 250cc "bike" and our comprehension that it somehow will turn this great iron monster via friction. And, sure enough, it does. As a museum staffer approaches and cranks up the Benelli's engine, we wait eagerly for movement, for the event to unfold. Without Chris Burden throttling the engine, of course, this will not be the same kind of audience experience as Shoot or The Visitation would have been for the approximately 25 people actually present during those two Burden performances. However, as the gargantuan wheel begins to spin, faster and faster, a noticeable ambiance of threat begins to build in this crowd of 60 or 70 humans that I'm sharing this experience with, and there is a slight possibility that something might go wrong here. Against all visible verification that the wheel is bolted down, safely shackled to the gallery floor, one can't help but wonder, "what if?" Which way will it careen after it hits the floor? Am I safer here or behind the wheel? This dual anticipation of "the waiting" and a perceived, ominous threat of imagined violence of "The Big Wheel" echo Burden's earlier play with the dual audience experience of The Visitation. Only here it's PG-13, a parental advisory that this may not be suitable for those with a heart condition, or those simply impatient with bloodless-ness from those we have come to expect might maim or brutalize us with their art. It is said that Chris Burden has had to reconcile his earlier, iconic bodywork with his newer explorations of physics, engineering and power. This may be, and if so, Burden has responded elegantly from 1979 onward with major works that deal with public expectations of his "bad boy" persona and his mature transformation of his presence and the public experience. He may be forever known as "the artist who shot himself" but Burden's trajectory, through the "body as medium" to the "mediation of presence," continues to elucidate our understanding of the progression of sculpture: "His ability to address spectacular expectations and incorporate them into subsequent performances - often by playing against type, as it were - demonstrates a concern, sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit, with artistic subjectivity as a category, and particularly with its public and institutional dimensions. This concern operates in tension with the idea of a legitimating or authenticating individual presence."(4)
Burden has consistently changed his conception of himself; first,
as an object, then distancing himself from the object and, finally, disconnecting
himself from the audience. The progression that had already begun in 1974 with
The Visitation, continued in 1979 with The Big Wheel, as Burden entirely
removed himself from the "performance." Simply put, Burden’s body, that had once
been the "object" of his “sculpture,” was removed from the situation and replaced
by his persona as ephemeral presence, or his absence became presence.
It is as if Burden's removal of his physical being from the
performances imbued the object-signifiers within the performative arena - the series of prop-objects utilized or positioned to simulate an ambiance
of threat - with the quasi-traditional, surface suggestion what
we collectively remember as sculpture.
Thus, Burden's later work can be seen to further transform the
gestalt of Morris’s minimalism with Burden’s decidedly post-minimalist move to
eliminate physicality from his “performances.” But not for reasons having to do
with Modernist tropes of subjectivity but having more to do with Burden’s retrogressive
capitulation to the object as the raw material of the sculptural field.