An Artist of the Futile World

Here’s a problem that most of us never have to face: You’re young, you’re trying to get established, and the work you do becomes such a skyrocket success that there’s almost no place to go but down. Think child actor here, or viral internet sensation, teen music heartthrob, teenage tennis champion–any of those rare persons who are everywhere one moment only to disappear a few moments later and are never heard from again. This is perhaps what F. Scott Fitzgerald was thinking about when he wrote: “There are no second acts in American lives.” Or, more recently, what Kurt Cobain was pondering when he quoted Neil Young in his suicide note: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” 

Chris Burden is a case study for how quick and early success can affect the course of an artistic career. In 1971, at age 25, Burden became suddenly famous (or infamous) throughout the art world. That year, in the F Space gallery in Los Angeles, Burden made a performance piece titled “Shoot,” in which he had an assistant point a rifle at his left arm and shoot it. And art would be changed forever afterward. Never mind that Burden, when interviewed a year later, talked about the influence of the Vietnam War on the piece and “about the difference between how people reacted to soldiers being shot in Vietnam and how they reacted to fictional people being shot on commercial TV….What does it mean not to avoid being shot, that is, by staying home or avoiding the war, but to face it head on?” In the midst of the self-absorbed and recessional 1970s–which starkly contrasted to the wild, communitarian, and innovative 1960s–critics and observers had a hard time getting past a basic reductive formula: This crazy artist would go to any length to turn his body into art. Through the whole of the 1970s, artists would spearhead only a few new art movements–just mail art, installation art, neoexpressionism (which, of course, was a throwback to an earlier movement)–and in this lull Burden’s performances stood out.

Burden followed “Shoot” with a series of memorable performances. In Five Day Locker Piece” (1971), he spent five days crammed inside a two-foot by two-foot locker. In “Deadman” (1972), he lay still beneath a tarpaulin as though he were a corpse, and in “Bed Piece” (1972) he stayed in a bed in the Market Street Program gallery in Venice, California, for twenty-two straight days. Each successive work of Burden’s from this period was designed to test the limits of his endurance, strength, flexibility and tolerance for pain. He hung himself upside down and naked over a basketball court (“Movie on the Way Down,” 1973); he crawled naked through broken glass on a local 10-second TV spot (“Through the Night Softly” 1973); and he lay on the floor of a Chicago gallery beneath a piece of glass for forty-five consecutive hours (“Doomed,” 1975). One of his most notorious works from this period was called “Transfixed.” For this performance, which took place in 1974 on Speedway Avenue in Venice, California, Burden lay down on the rear of a Volkswagen Beetle and had nails hammered into both of his hands, as if he were being crucified. The car was pushed out of a garage for a few minutes, its engine revved at full throttle, and then pushed back inside. 

This string of youthful performances were so widely observed that they took on a life beyond the artist, helping create a new art genre, endurance art, and influencing a generation of imitators–some noteworthy; most forgettable. For a time in the 1970s, it seemed his ideas were the only new thing going. While I was in art school in the early 1990s, a professor who was acquainted with Burden, Tom Holste, spoke of the artist as a shamanistic psychopomp for the modern world. This likely was because, in his work Burden often seemed to enter a trancelike state in order, perhaps, to commune on our behalf with a supernatural or spiritual world. (A psychopomp is a figure who escorts newly deceased souls to the spirit world.) This early work also gave Chris Burden a formidable reputation even beyond the circles that cared about such things. Norman Mailer referenced Burden’s work in his 1973 essay and book on graffiti art, The Faith of Graffiti. (Mailer held up Burden as an example of the Romantic, civilized artist in contrast to the more primitive impulses that guided graffiti artists.) Burden even entered the popular consciousness. His performance “Transfixed” was mentioned in David Bowie’s 1977 song “Joe the Lion,” and his “Shoot” provided the inspiration for Laurie Anderson’s 1977 song “It’s Not the Bullet that Kills You-It’s the Hole (for Chris Burden).” “I used to use myself as a target,” Anderson sang. “I used myself as a goal. I was digging myself so much, I was digging me so much, I dug myself right into a hole.”

By 1978, “dug myself into a hole” may have been an apt description of how Burden was feeling. For some time, each new performance work seemed designed to be more sensational than the last, an obvious creative dead end. And now that he was into his 30s, his body was less able to endure what his intellect imagined for it. Compounding Burden’s frustration, perhaps, is the fact that the intention of most of his performances was widely misunderstood. A few observers were aware of this at the time. Robert Horwitz, writing in Artforum in May 1976, said of Burden’s work: “Like most reductivist art, his work is under-articulated. That is, the information presented is so limited that one set of facts may suggest–indeed, may encourage–a number of conflicting interpretations and offer no means of determining which were intended by the artist…. Inaccessibly private responses, feelings and insights are woven into its basic structure. Nor can one distinguish between those qualities that are specifically attributable to the work from those that are ambient or latent in the environment.” (Horwitz also added that Burden’s ambiguity was likely a strength, serving “to set the work apart from the general flux of experience.”)

For reasons that the artist has never fully explained, Burden quit making performance art works around 1977 or 1978. Also in 1978, Burden became a professor in the art department at the University of California in Los Angeles. And while he made art objects in the years following, none of it ever attracted anything like the attention that his early performance work did. Art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote, in 2007, that Burden’s work since the late 70s was comprised of “one-off wonders.” Burden’s career was, at least in the upper echelons of the art world, for the most part as cast-off and forgotten as Linda Blair, Lief Garrett, and Tracy Austin.

Burden was forgotten, that is, up until a few years ago. The seeds of Burden’s return to the international art spotlight were sown around the turn of the century. In 1999, Burden, now in his 50s, created an installation for the Tate Gallery in London called “When Robots Rule: The Two Minute Airplane Factory.” Burden had commissioned a studio of sculptural engineers to create a machine that would make, in an assembly-line way, a series of rubber band-powered toy airplanes out of tissue paper, plastic, and balsa wood. A placard in the gallery explained to viewers how various parts of the machine, which churned away throughout the exhibition, were intended to work. The only hitch was the factory did not. No actual airplanes were ever created. In fact, no actual material ever ran through the machine.

The resulting consternation and attention paid to this work–was this a joke? was this intentional?–brought  international attention back to Burden for the first time since the 1970s. He followed with more compelling work: A “Ghost Ship” that had no crew and, piloted using on-board computers and a GPS system, undertook a 5-day, 330 mile trip off the coast of England; a sculptural piece, called “The Flying Steamroller,” that used a flying level to send a steamroller flying through the air; an installation, for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, called “Urban Light” that was comprised of 202 closely clustered, fully operational vintage streetlights (a work that has proved so popular that its become a popular location for wedding photos and fashion shoots and was even featured in a recent Hollywood romantic comedy); and, most recently, two variations (“Metropolis I” and “Metropolis II”) on a model imaginary city constructed of erector-set parts, machinery, conveyor belts, building blocks, toy car tracks, and similar materials, feeling and sounding very much like a modern-nightmare version of a Rube Goldberg machine.

“Metropolis II” is, for now, the centerpiece creation of this newly reemerged artist. Recently loaned by the artist for 10 years to Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it is an overwhelming thing: more than 1,000 cars clack loudly through the machinery and across tracks and curves, filling the space with a constant roar of sound; individual cars are impossible to discern as they move around the construction, through the various machines, girders, and block constructions, and eventually return to the end of the tracks to start the churning process all over again. The cars zip along the track at speeds of up to (relative to their size) 100 mph, and they are intended to continue doing so until they wear out. Burden has said about this work that it is a “poetic” (as opposed to a “realistic”) portrait of “L.A. or any modern city,” even as he has also suggested the work “does produce anxiety” because of the constant movement, the noise, and the endless clacking bustle and turmoil. In sum, this is a provocative piece in the way that poetry about death is provocative: We know there is likely more truth in this fancy portrait than there is in any realistic portrayal.

Among its many attributes, “Metropolis II” begs us to reconsider Burden’s complete oeuvre and its intentions. All of his work–even his early seminal performance work–has one thing in common. It all has pointed to the unreality and futility that rules modern life. The pain we projected onto his early work was not just the artist’s alone, but was also our pain. At first this was expressed by setting up impossible and quixotic tasks for himself while he stood in for us, but later, after the personal performances had run their course–or perhaps after Burden had grown up enough to start looking outwardly–this meant creating structures that reflected the modern urban condition. In the end, Chris Burden was less a shaman steering souls to an alternate world, than he was a prophet revealing the beautiful pain and equisite futility of our own. 

Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications.

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