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THIS IS ONLY A TEST: CHRIS BURDEN

THE IMAGE MOST EMBLEMATIC of ’70s body art has the rough panicky blur of a news photo. Faces are unrecognizable. So is the rifle. And the artist’s description of the action is a simple dispassionate observation: “At 7:45 P.M., I was shot in the left arm by a friend. . . . ” Chris Burden took his risks in the manner of a scientist—one who decides that he must test a new serum on himself alone, who later declares that he always knew it would work. When he stopped performing, Burden began to exhibit machines and war toys and installations. The project, however, had remained the same: to demythologize certain choices, to deromanticize certain symbols, to get real.

He says he had himself shot so he’d know what it felt like, though he didn’t mean the physical pain so much as “getting ready to stand there.” There could be nothing theoretical or metaphoric in knowing that the gun was loaded, that

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