Burden to Bear

Amy Taubin on Burden

Chris Burden, Through the Night Softly, 1973. Photo: Charles Hill. 
In Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey, Burden, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 88 minutes.

A PRIMER ON THE WORK of the West Coast artist of the title—first name, Chris—Richard Dewey and Timothy Marrinan’s documentary Burden is well-researched but short on context. Piecing together video documentation of both the confrontational performance works that made Burden the most notorious artist of the 1970s and the intricately fabricated, often magically beautiful sculpture that he began to produce in the 1980s until he died in 2015, the filmmakers leave the commentary largely to Burden himself. Fortunately, he is articulate and seriously witty both in archival footage and in interviews recorded specifically for this film in and around his Topanga Canyon studio in 2014.

Burden insisted that his pieces were sculpture, including those he made in the first half of the ’70s, in which material elements were eclipsed by the performances that defined them in space and time. In Five Day Locker Piece, 1971, his MFA thesis at the University of California, Irvine, and the first of many pieces to apply the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic of risk to his own body, Burden scrunched himself into a four-by-four-by-five-inch metal locker, where he remained for five days. The locker had been altered so that he could access jugs of water in the locker above and piss into a bucket in the locker below. Something of the connection of art and science, which Burden admired in Renaissance art, was mapped into the Rube Goldberg–like inner structure of the three lockers, but at the time that aspect of the work made less of an impression than the torture Burden inflicted on himself.

All that remains of Five Day Locker Piece and the even more notorious works that followed—among them Shoot, 1971, Doorway to Heaven, 1973, and Trans-fixed, 1974—are some still photos and a few seconds of video or Super 8 film. To confirm the works’ importance, the filmmakers call upon some of Burden’s most successful contemporaries and teachers to appraise them in one or two sentences. Since no one has the time to say much of anything, a viewer who knows nothing of Burden’s work or this period of feverish activity in performance and body art across the world, might come away thinking that Burden was sui generis. It’s not until Vito Acconci shows up to comment—forty years after the fact—on Kunst Kick, 1974, in which Burden had someone kick him down a flight of stairs at the Basel Art Fair, that one might consider that these two artists, though working on opposite coasts, were stunningly in sync throughout their careers, even in that they both hit a wall in using their own bodies for performance in the mid-’70s and turned instead to hybrid forms of sculpture and architecture.

Burden is invaluable, and even moving, when it focuses on the artist’s late works, some of which are site-specific. Burden’s first major museum retrospective was not in Los Angeles but at New York’s New Museum in 2013. What could not be included was Urban Light, 2008, the permanent installation of antique street lamps arranged as densely as a forest and now lit by solar power. That it is a visionary work of Apollonian beauty is evident even from the movie’s paltry images. The illumination here is from the discussion by Burden and some of his assistants, which is also the case with Burden’s final, similarly transcendent work, Ode to Santos Dumont, 2015, a forty-foot-long oval-shaped polyurethane balloon that flies in large circles through the air, powered by helium and a small gas motor. Named for the Brazilian aviator who flew a small dirigible around the Eiffel Tower, it was first shown by LACMA just after Burden’s death. He had lived long enough to see the piece tested, and as an assistant relays in the film, he felt in his entire being the moment when the motor cut out and the balloon continued to fly. Burden may be light on art history, but it does suggest the transformation of the artist’s work from the body confined to the spirit released and taking flight.

Burden runs through Thursday, May 11, at the Metrograph in New York.