November 30, 2013

An (Un)Burdened Presence

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sole requirement for art, that it need only be "interesting," Ward writes that performance art like Shoot progressively superseded the object itself as what needed to be "interesting" so that Burden himself became the "passive" sculptural subject (object) that was shot.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.

TOP IMAGE: The Big Wheel (1979); Three-ton, eight-foot diameter, cast-iron flywheel powered by a 1968 Benelli 250cc motorcycle, 112 x 175 x 143 in (284.5 x 444.5 x 363.2 cm). The Museum of Contemporary Art Collection, Los Angeles. [© Copyright by Chris Burden; photo courtesy of New Museum, NYC.]

BOTTOM IMAGE: The Visitation (1974); performance at Hamilton College, Clinton, NY; November 9, 1974. [© Copyright by Chris Burden; photographer unknown.]


1. Ward, Frazer. No Innocent Bystanders: Performance Art and Audience, Dartmouth College Press, 2012, 86-87.

2. Ward covers this as well, citing Rosalind Krauss's Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.

3. Horvitz, Robert. "Chris Burden," ArtforumVolume XIV, No. 9 (May 1976), 24-31. 

4. Op. cit., Ward, 85.