October 18, 2007
The threat of violence and destruction is latent in much of Chris Burden’s early performance art and helped cast him as Southern California’s “bad boy” artist in the 1970s. Working out of his Venice studio, Chris had himself shot with a .22 rifle, nailed to a Volkswagen roof, fired a pistol at an airliner, tried to “breathe” underwater, crossed two “hot” electric wires at his chest (above) and assaulted a television journalist by holding a knife to her throat.(1)
These are difficult performance art pieces that Burden was keen to present as “sculptures.” They have a mythic presence in “body art” yet he has grown reticent to talk about them as he aged, apparently seeking to distance himself from his destructive early work. His evolving sculptural process began to explore the physics of stress and energy (Samson and Big Wheel) with a whimsical fascination with the “gee whiz” of science. Yet the legacy of Burden’s body art assured that the possibility of imminent and unpredictable violence would remain inherent in the work of succeeding generations of art students “attempting to emulate the transgressive character of Burden’s early work”(2) and contemporary artists like John Bock and Matthew Barney.
In his somewhat lackluster introduction to what he himself refers to as a “haphazard selection of works” (Documentation of Selected Works 1971-74), Burden apologizes for the lack of effective documentation of some of the pieces; either the performances “don’t lend themselves to being filmed” or “somebody forgot to push the button.” This only helped to create their mystique, of course, since the eye-witness verbal accounts have naturally evolved to mythology over the years.
The grainy imagery that did survive presents a cinéma-vérité that is alternately claustrophobic or obsessive, showing a leaner, sinewy version of Burden engaged in “the psychological experience of danger, pain, and physical risk.”(3) Throughout his narration, Burden seems at a loss to validate his work and its impact on performance art. His inarticulateness on this point may have been calculated to further enhance his 1970s persona. Yet his mature position on the “transgressive” and dangerous threat of contemporary performance art was revealed in his letter of resignation to UCLA in 2005 over an incident involving art student Joseph Deutch’s apparent use of “gunplay” as art.(4)
In a disingenuous attempt to “bracket” the art school environment from the “real world” of art practice, Burden said that “The university is a group of people who agree to be civilized. If the student wanted to rent a studio and play Russian roulette and call it art, then art history will decide.”(5)
This comment by Burden reveals his inner conflict regarding his earlier performance art’s steady controversial influence on the succeeding generations of artists. From that same New York Times article-interview:
“Mr. Burden also said he believed his early performance pieces had influenced Mr. Deutch. ‘I'm sure the student was referencing the work I did,’ he said. ‘He was also trying to co-opt and demean it and parody it.’”(6)
Yet it is not productive for the discourse surrounding performance art for Burden to have it both ways. On one hand, he can accept that his earlier work has been “co-opted” and engage in productive discussions about its “parody” by the younger generation of artists. Or, he can withdraw his presence entirely, seeking absolution from the continued controversies surrounding performance art.
It is unfortunate that Burden has evidently chosen to retreat from the discourse by resigning from UCLA and refusing further interactions concerning the body art model that he is partially responsible for developing. For without a continued and viable dialogue about the on-going use of violence and destruction in body art, its practice as an art form remains mired in doubt and confusion tainted by media sensationalism.
Image: © Copyright by Chris Burden.
1. www.suicidegirls.com: “In 1972, Phyllis Lutjeans, a friend who hosted a cable TV show, invited Burden on the program. Without warning — in a performance he dubbed ‘TV Hijack’ — he held her at knifepoint for several minutes. ‘When Chris put the knife at my throat, I was absolutely terrified,’ Lutjeans recalled for The [LA] Times 20 years later. ‘I thought, 'This guy's psychotic.'”
2. Kastner, Jeffrey. “Gun Shy”, artforum.com, Jan. 20, 2005.
4. Hontz, Jenny. “Gunplay, as Art, Sets Off a Debate”, The New York Times, Feb. 5, 2005.
5. Op. cit.
6. Op. cit.