Art & Culture in Chicago

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Bad Boy Turned Architect

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burden“Today I am going to breathe water,”

explained Chris Burden in his 1974 video, ‘Velvet Water’, “which is the opposite of drowning, because when you breathe water, you believe water to be richer, thicker oxygen capable of sustaining life”. In doing so, he decided not to be bound by conventional wisdom and to mistrust everything except his own experience.  After five minutes he collapsed, choking.

Is there something wrong with Chris Burden?  Is he crazy, or is he just a good artist?  Although his artwork has tamed quite a bit over the years, it is still awe-inspiring.  But the question that his work, especially his early work, elicits in my mind is- is he doing this out of insanity or love?

Burden is best known for his early work.  Beginning with his 1971 MFA show, ‘Five Day Locker Piece’, in which he confined himself in a tiny student locker for five days straight, Burden spent his early career staging performances that explored a potentially fatal merging of art and life. Over a three year period from ’71 to ‘74, he nailed himself to the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle, lay under a tarp on La Cienega Boulevard, lay in a bed in a gallery for 22 days, slithered, nearly naked, through 50 feet of broken glass, and most infamous of all, had himself shot with a rifle.

 Over 30 years later, art students still tell stories about the artist who shot himself in the name of art.  “Didn’t he die?” they say.  No, he didn’t.  Chris Burden is not a one-hit-wonder. He still makes art.  In fact, he currently has a large-scale installation outside the LACMA and recently had one up outside the Rockefeller Center.

Burden is still an interesting and relevant artist.  His youthful bravado has been traded for wisdom and subtlety: a healthy progression.  Dissidence has been replaced with inquisitiveness and optimism.  However, the common thread throughout his art is an interest in testing limits- in proving seemingly impossible things to be possible after all.

One of his most interesting post-performance pieces is ‘Samson’, from 1985.  It is a machine that, when installed in a gallery, threatens to reduce the building to rubble.  Upon entering the gallery, every visitor must pass through a turnstile.  Connected to the turnstile, a gearbox makes a hundred-ton jack expand a little with every turn, ramming two huge pieces of timber more tightly against the walls. The more people who attended the exhibition during its six-month run, the greater the probability of the destruction of the building.  Luckily for its inhabitants, the building never fell.

Chris Burden’s father was an engineer. You can imagine his disappointment when his son strayed from his architecture major and began making conceptual art.  Perhaps he would be pleased to know that his son is now returning to his roots- his most recent major project being a 65-foot model skyscraper made with approximately one million stainless steel replicas of Erector set parts.  Appropriately, the behemoth sculpture is titled ‘What My Dad Gave Me,’ “a reference to the fact that he gave me the confidence to think that I could do something like this,” says Burden. 

It’s funny the way things turn out.  Decades ago when Chris was young, his performance pieces reflected an ambivalence toward life.  Some might even call it a death wish.  Now though, as he ages, he shows an appreciation for life and a yearning for more.  When asked in an interview about his ambitions, he replied, “I want to live a long time so that I can fulfill my ideas. I have more ideas than I have life left.” 

Burden’s work is not the subversive product of a crazy man but a celebration of art and life and a manifestation of his desire to enrich those things.  His work reflects a responsibility toward art and life by blurring the distinction between the two, and then taking them and making the most out of them.  In doing so, he asks us what we are doing with our lives and how we relate to our own mortality.  He reminds us to enjoy life instead of trudging through it.  He has made himself a martyr for us and an example of what could be, and this is not something to be dismissed. 

When you say your prayers tonight, and you’re thanking Goya and Duchamp for their contributions, don’t forget to give a shout out to Chris Burden- that guy who shot himself in the name of art.





Written by Kelly Reaves

December 13, 2008 at 9:50 pm

2 Responses

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  1. The topic is quite hot on the Internet right now. What do you pay the most attention to when choosing what to write ?
    p.s. Year One is already on the Internet and you can watch it for free.

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