Chris Burden's New Museum show opens this week and I fully intend to travel to New York in a couple of weeks to take it all in; readers of this site can expect a lengthy report from me when I return. Meanwhile, Thomas Micchelli has already posted his thoughts on it for Hrag Vartanian's Hyperallergic. Micchelli has a firm grasp on the implications of Burden's oeuvre but in addressing the artist's earlier work from the 1970s his "art speak" fumbles when he writes:
"The documentation is extraordinarily powerful in the simplicity of its texts and photos — nothing extra is needed. The binders may be overlooked by the casual visitor, but that too bears implications for the passage of time in an artist’s career and the inherent transience of the art form."
My objections are twofold. First, the supposition that "extra" documentation is even available to us ignores the essence of Burden's early 1970s body art.(1) That we get deskilled photographs and grainy, badly edited film footage is miraculous enough but it won't come close to the actual experience of the pieces. Second, rather than referring to the "transience" of this form of art we would be better served by defining them as the practitioners did: actions of durational temporality enacted by artists. Yes, they were "temporary" but to use that word to describe Burden's art vaguely implies that his body art pieces were possibly exhibited at another time. To represent these pieces as "transient" then is to confuse them with traditional art forms that can be simply restaged in another place.
This was not the case for Burden, Vito Acconci, Ana Mendieta, Marina Abramović, Bruce Nauman and other body artists; the essence of these early body art works was that they existed only during the time they were performed and in the place where they were performed. If you saw Chris nailed to the top of the VW then you experienced it. The photographic or film documentation of these pieces serves only to suggest what that experience might have been like.
Moreover, let's not extend too much credit to the curators of "Extreme Measures" for not representing Burden's early body works in a more elaborate fashion until we find out how much say Chris had in that particular era's presentation. Indeed, the "current vogue" of replications or re-enactments of "classic" performance art and/or body works has blossomed of late and we can blame Marina A. and MoMa for that. But the New Museum's ring-binder of 8x10s of Chris nailed to the VW, crawling through broken glass or having himself shot in the arm is the minimal display required for these historic pieces. They are barely memories now. That's why these pieces best function as legends trapped in the past.
IMAGE: "Transfixed" piece by Burden, April 1974. © Copyright by Chris Burden.
1. I prefer this term instead of "performance art" when considering Burden; he spoke of these 1970s pieces as "sculpture" and indeed his physical presence was 90% of each action.