The name Chris Burden was familiar to me. I remember hearing about him having someone shoot him (like, with a rifle) for an exhibit, and I also remember hearing about his Chicago installation where he stayed under a piece of glass for three days until someone brought him water, and then he stormed out and came back with a hammer (Hint: that was the point). But, that was about it. He was wildly respected in the art world (in his later years), but I don’t really follow the art world, so when I realized he was also the man who created Urban Light and Metropolis for LACMA, I was sort of blown away. How was this the same man?
Burden is one of those documentaries that doesn’t even try to reinvent the wheel. It’s a straight-up biographical doc with one trick up its sleeve: how many people really know who in the hell Chris Burden is? The film opens with an ad that Burden ran on local television where he compared himself to the greatest artists of all time. He says that people were enraged. Of course they were. That was the point. And, at the beginning of Burden, it just seemed like an adolescent thing to do. By the end of Burden, I was more along the lines of, “Maybe he was right.”
We hear from quite a few colleagues who knew Burden throughout his life and career – friends, his ex-wife, and even a grumpy British gentleman who thinks everything he did was rubbish. It’s a great assortment of opinions that never all agree on the merits of what he did, but all seemed to agree on the merits of why he did it. But Burden himself is the star, in candid conversations at his workshop in Topanga Canyon. In his late-sixties, Burden still has a wide-eyed zeal for what he’s doing, and that’s evident when he’s talking about a new project where he’s creating an enormous skyscraper out of Erector set pieces. He’s describing how it works – as dangerous as always – and he just can’t wait to get it finished so he can try it out himself.
The most alluring aspects of Burden are the performances and exhibits themselves, and we have audio and video of quite a few of them. A particularly jarring one involves Burden placing a knife to the throat of a journalist and threatening to hurt her if the broadcast station doesn’t switch over to live view. That was the piece. And you almost feel concern and anger against him until you remember that he asked the journalist multiple times if she was sure she wanted a performance. That might have been a tip that something weird was coming. But, even the journalist can look back on what happened as art. And the brief segment with Roger Ebert was, of course, delightful to someone like me who considers Ebert to be the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Of course, the film ends on a sad note considering Burden died from cancer in 2015, during the making of this documentary, and just days before his beautiful new exhibit opened. As with American Anarchist, we spend all this time with a fascinating character we knew little about, only to have that person ripped away from us and the world just when they were poised to be rediscovered in a whole new way. But Burden does a great job of doing just that – attempting to expose new brains to the works of its star. And who wouldn’t be interested in what Burden did? Even today, no one has that kind of courage and grit. People called Chris Burden the “Evel Knievel of the Art World.” That’s rubbish. Evel Knievel was the Chris Burden of stunt work.
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