Mic Check

New York

Left: Anthony Burdin during his performance. Middle: Artist Christian Jankowski. Right: The handwritten set list for Burdin's performance.

At half past eight on Sunday night, I walked into a dark, low-ceilinged room in the basement of Michele Maccarone’s Canal Street gallery and all but bumped into the critics Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith (Voice and Times, respectively), both engrossed in a two-screen video by Los Angeles-based artist Anthony Burdin. It was my third run-in with the duo in four days, signaling the hectic start of another art season, a weekend that not only involved the usual spate of openings, but also parties, performances, and, this year, parades. The teeming crowd of gallery goers in Chelsea on Thursday night had by Sunday dwindled to intrepid devotees—the “hard core,” in Saltz’s words—who had trekked to Chinatown for the opening of Burdin’s first New York solo exhibition and/or the opening of a new group show around the corner at the newish, collaboratively run Orchard, where artists Gareth James, Andrea Fraser, and Dan Graham and curator Bennett Simpson were hanging out.

The video reeled me in too. It was a claustrophobic exploration of the unkempt interior of the artist’s car set to a cassette recording of his own cover of the James Bond theme song. Its camera work—shaky, invasive, and owing a lot to Paul McCarthy’s technique—was trained for some time on the head of a snare drum that he beat arhythmically, occasionally nosing off toward the keys left in the ignition (which he tickled like a windchime) or some undifferentiated mess on the floor. Burdin is rumored to have lived in his car for some time, and it looks like it. The work has no discernible narrative, and its strangeness is only enhanced by the amusing revelation, about twenty minutes in, that the whole grimy affair takes place in the parking lot of a southern California Whole Foods.

At a little bit past nine, Burdin’s first guitar chord rang out, and I followed the artist Carol Bove up to the gallery’s third floor. About twenty people, mostly artists, were seated on the floor facing Burdin, who stood with his guitar near a wall-size video projection of himself playing drums. With little fanfare, the “recording artist” started in on live covers of his recorded covers of hard rock classics, keeping up and occasionally bantering with his prerecorded self—reminding me of Wynne Greenwood’s performances as Tracy and the Plastics. In person, with his long, stringy hair obscuring his face and an orange cardigan haphazardly buttoned, he was a ringer for Kurt Cobain (or, since Burdin was playing second-generation copies, Michael Pitt as Cobain in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days). On video, in a black mesh shirt, his look was spot-on Danzig.

At the outset, Burdin had an audience of about forty; after eight or ten hits, including a cover of “Paint it Black,” his one-man Battle of the Bands began to feel like a battle of wills between artist and audience. I tried to put on my critical thinking cap, but it was loud. The room was hot. There was beer downstairs. All three factors made it difficult to think about what issues might be in play here—questions about the “culture of the copy”? The artist as promiscuous roleplayer?—or even to figure out what song Burdin was playing at any given moment. Eventually the audience dwindled to about a dozen. Finally, after the last note and a burst of applause, Burdin hammered his guitar into the wall—pure Cobain—and left it there; “I was here” evidence for future gallery visitors.

But then this relatively uneventful performance lurched wildly off track. An audience member no one recognized—tall, with scruffy facial hair, wearing a suit and carrying shopping bags—got up off the floor, walked across the room, and pried the guitar from the wall. Burdin tussled with him, punched the guitar through the drywall once again and swung the mic stand menacingly at the interloper, thus blocking the beer bottle that was being thrown at him. The visitor got up to once again remove the guitar, at which point gallery owner Maccarone was drawn in, screaming at him furiously to “get the fuck out of my gallery” and to leave the art alone. It was all so over-the-top that I suspected it might be part of the act, but if so, no one was admitting it. Either way, Burdin’s antagonist left without greater incident. In the stunned silence that followed this dramatic denouement, Burdin admitted that he “was a little scared” by the turn of events. But it was all recorded by two video cameras—as is just about everything Burdin is involved with—and, as the videographer commented, “it looked fucking great.”

Brian Sholis