Gun Shy

Jeffrey Kastner on Chris Burden and Nancy Rubins's departure from UCLA

Los Angeles

Left: Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971. Right: The UCLA campus.

In 1971, a performance with a gun helped secure Chris Burden’s status as an art-world legend. Now, more than three decades later, it seems another performance involving a firearm may have been a central factor in the abrupt retirements of Burden and his wife, sculptor Nancy Rubins, from the faculty of UCLA’s Department of Art.

Rumors began to percolate before Christmas, and there has been increasing chatter on art blogs since then, but little official information has emerged about the situation—all the parties have kept quiet on the specifics of the performance and its relationship to the departures, a few weeks later, of the two highly regarded professors, both of whom had been at the school for more than two decades. Burden headed the school’s New Genres specialization, and Rubins, who has just opened a major show at New York’s Paul Kasmin Gallery, taught sculpture. (Burden declined to be interviewed for this article; Rubins did not respond to an interview request.)

Yet through conversations with people familiar with the circumstances—including a student who witnessed the original incident—a picture emerges of a crisis that began on November 29, when in the course of a performance for a class taught by visiting instructor Ron Athey, a graduate student entered a classroom at UCLA’s Warner building where roughly thirty other students were gathered. The student, wearing a coat and tie, produced either a gun or a convincing replica of one, put what looked like a bullet into the weapon, spun the cylinder, and held it to his head, Russian-roulette style. He pulled the trigger, but the gun did not fire. The student then left the room; while he was out of view, a shot was heard, at which point he returned, now apparently unarmed. A short discussion ensued between what the witness described as the “freaked-out” performer and a room full of people who were “a little frozen and a little scared,” and then the class broke up for the day. This version of events expands upon but is basically corroborated by UCLA’s official statement made by assistant vice chancellor Lawrence Lokman, who said that the performance “raised a number of important issues and concerns for faculty, staff, and students with regard to artistic freedom, safety, and the boundaries of performance art within an academic setting.” He added that the dean of students office and the University of California Police Department were investigating to determine whether the student had used “an actual gun, or a replica.”

But if the facts of the incident are not in question, what exactly occurred afterward remains unclear. According to Sarah Watson, a director of Gagosian Gallery who spoke on Burden’s behalf, the artist had recently become disenchanted with the school because of budget cuts and other administrative issues. Yet Watson also acknowledged that the performance—and what Burden, who wanted the student immediately punished, perceived as a tardy and inadequate response from UCLA officials—did play a role in his and Rubins’s decision to retire. Meanwhile, the university statement asserts that “a well-established process . . . for investigating such matters” began promptly; a student in Athey’s class reported that a meeting was held the following week led by art department head Barbara Drucker, which “centered around how the university was dealing with it, what kind of actions were going to be taken.” According to the same student, the performer, who did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview, remains at the university.

Those familiar with Burden’s well-documented penchant, at least early in his practice, for pushing the boundaries of performance—particularly, of course, with the legendary Shoot, 1971, for which he had a friend fire a bullet into his arm at a Santa Ana gallery—might be forgiven for seeing some irony in the fact that this sort of incident would contribute to the end of his career at UCLA. Yet there have been accounts over the years of students attempting to emulate the transgressive character of Burden’s early work, attempts Burden himself has reportedly criticized as dangerous and ill-considered. And UCLA’s own published security policy does explicitly ban the “possession of firearms or replicas” on campus. Some people close to the situation say the bigger story has more to do with a shrinking budget and swelling discord in a department that is now—on the strength of a faculty featuring major contemporary artists like Burden, Rubins, John Baldessari, Charles Ray, Mary Kelly, Catherine Opie, Lari Pittman, and the recently retired Paul McCarthy—one of the country’s premier contemporary art programs. This year’s brochure for the school describes New Genres as giving “emphasis to questioning preconceived notions of the role of art in culture.” If nothing else, the current controversy confirms that, in some cases, such questions can have more than mere theoretical implications.