PRINT September 1989


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 the trigger would be pulled. Burden’s performances created a context in which it was possible, though not probable, that he would die. That context itself was the art. In Prelude to 220, or 110, 1971, for example, he had his wrists, neck, and legs bolted to a concrete gallery floor with copper bands. Nearby sat two buckets of water with live 110-volt lines submerged in them. Had any visitor chosen to spill the water, Burden would have been electrocuted. Typically, he was forcing himself, the audience, and the sponsoring institution to face an elemental and harrowing reality. So too, in the photodocumentation of Shoot, 1971, we can read the trace of a shudder.

Indeed, the culture seems to have shuddered through some crisis of the body then, beginning in the late ’60s. Or was it some crisis in authenticity? Or some trauma surrounding the object’s “dematerialization?” Analyzing the emergence and disappearance of body art is beyond the scope of this article. But the fact remains that during the ’70s in particular, some artists risked injury and death in a manner unprecedented in the history of art. For example, there was Gina Pane climbing a ladder with cutting edges—barefoot (Escalade sanglante [Bloody climb], 1971); Dennis Oppenheim standing in a circle five feet in diameter while someone threw rocks at him from above (Rocked Circle-Fear, 1971); Marina Abramović and Ulay running naked and repeatedly colliding at top speed (1975); Linda Montano inserting acupuncture needles around her eyes (Mitchell’s Death, 1978). And Burden was no doubt the most notorious of them all, at least in America. His risks were more dramatic than the others, but also more calculated.

Often, his disturbing actions were misread as exercises in masochism or as way stations along somespiritual path. Hadn’t he crawled nearly naked through broken glass (Through the Night Softly, 1973), pushed two live wires into his chest (Doorway to Heaven, 1973), had himself crucified on top of a Volkswagen (Trans-Fixed, 1974)? But he denies any interest in either pain or transcendence. As he explained it in 1975, “When I use pain or fear in a work, it seems to energize the situation.”1 That “situation” was the relationship between him and the audience. It was their fear and distress as much as his that “energized the situation.” Burden’s work examines physical phenomena in their natural context, the land of human error. And Prelude wasn’t about electricity’s potential to kill, but the audience’s. It wasn’t a symbol, but a real catastrophe waiting to happen. Through his body, Burden (who studied a good deal of physics in college) could investigate an energy that science can’t measure.

When he did White Light/White Heat, 1975, remaining out of sight on a platform at the Ronald Feldman gallery for 22 days, his “fantasy” (as he put it) was that the gallery would not reveal his presence, but that people would somehow sense it when they entered the room. White Light was Burden’s refinement of an earlier experiment in inertia, Bed Piece, 1972, in which he’d remained in bed in a gallery for 22 days, visible to all, but communicating with no one. As he recalled it in 1975: “In Bed Piece it was like I was this repulsive magnet. People would come up to about 15 feet from the bed and you could really feel it. There was an energy, a real electricity going on.”2 He’d become a generator, and normal human interaction had ceased.

Before he began performing, and still an M.F.A. student at the University of California, Irvine, Burden made interactive sculpture. Even then, he wanted audiences to do something. But it frustrated him when people failed to understand that his objects were not the art; the interaction was. For his M.F.A. thesis in 1971, he decided to circumvent the problem by using a 2-by-2-by-3-foot locker already present in the exhibition space—and his own body. For that first performance, Five Day Locker Piece, he just expected to curl up and endure for five consecutive days. But to his surprise, people he didn’t even know came unbidden to sit in front of the locker, to tell him their problems and the stories of their lives. Was the appeal merely his status as captive audience? Or is it that artists who break taboos and take on such ordeals are perceived as having special powers? Certainly, those who came were projecting something onto him. And Burden’s been extremely conscious of audience behavior ever since.

Burden’s work exposes real power struggles—with real consequences—between performer and audience, or artist and art world, or citizen and government. Traditionally, an audience wants to sit passively and expects the performer to “take command”; they will attack if the performer doesn’t. Burden began to play with this dynamic—traditional theater’s unarticulated mise-enscène. In Shout Piece, 1971, done soon after Five Day Locker Piece, he sat on a brightly lit platform, face painted red, voice amplified, ordering the people who entered the gallery to “get the fuck out”—which most did, immediately. His third performance was Prelude, in which he became the passive one, his life depending quite literally on the behavior of each gallery visitor. While masochism was not the point in Burden’s work, there was often a dynamic of dominance and submission. And probably because dominating (as in Shout Piece) simply drives an audience away, Burden usually chose to submit, making their decisions much tougher. In La Chiaraficazione, 1975, he sealed off a small room with particle board at the Alessandra Castelli gallery in Milan and persuaded the 11 people inside to collaborate with him on staying in the room till someone broke the door down from outside. The majority of the audience (about 150 people) remained outside, and no one knew what he was doing. They finally broke the door down after an hour and a half.

Burden’s actions earned him a sensational media reputation. The New York Times, for example, ran an article in 1973 called “He Got Shot for His Art,” illustrated with a photo of Burden in a ski mask. The artist had worn this mask for a piece called You’ll Never See My Face in Kansas City, 1971, but in the context of a mainstream newspaper such a photograph suggested that this man was a threat to society, a criminal. Burden went on to work with this public image as with a found object, sometimes undermining it, sometimes exploiting it. (But eventually, it helped convince him to quit performing.) In Shadow, 1976, for example, he spent a day at Ohio State University trying “to fit people’s preconceptions of an avant-garde artist” by remaining aloof and wearing opaque sunglasses, black cap, and a fatigue jacket stuffed with notebooks, film, and a tape recorder. In The Confession, 1974, on the other hand, he revealed intimate details about his personal life to a specially selected audience of people he’d just met, “imposing on them disturbing knowledge which had to be reconciled with my public image.” In Garcon!, 1976, he served cappuccino and espresso to visitors at a San Francisco gallery and “my attire and demeanor were such that only a handful of people out of the hundreds who attended the show recognized me as Chris Burden.” He could create tension just by sitting in a room. In Jaizu, 1972, Burden sat facing a gallery door, wearing sunglasses painted black on the inside, so he couldn’t see. Spectators were unaware of this. They assumed, then, that he was watching, as they entered one at a time and faced him alone. Just inside the door were two cushions and some marijuana cigarettes. As Burden described it, “Many people tried to talk to me, one assaulted me, and one left sobbing hysterically.” The artist remained passive, immobile, and speechless—the blank slate to whom each visitor gave an identity: judge? shaman? entertainer?

Burden invited only a small group of friends and other artists to witness actions with the most shock potential, like Shoot. But whether performing in public or private, he never made things easy for those who came to watch. These pieces were too real: either too horrifying or too everyday. Spectators at Shoot might ask themselves the same question as the spectators at Working Artist, 1975, a piece in which Burden lived and worked in a gallery for three days—and that is: “what made me want to watch this?” Audiences found themselves implicated intheir voyeurism. “Art doesn’t have a purpose,” Burden once said. “It’s a free spot in society, where you can do anything.”3 Burden established his art as that territory outside the social contract where either the artist or the spectators might do what they would otherwise think inappropriate.

His unpredictability brought a tension bordering on hostility to his pieces addressing the art world. For Doomed, 1975, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Burden reset a wall clock to 12 and lay down beneath a sheet of glass tipped at a 45-degree angle, then did nothing. The audience began to throw things at him, and still he did nothing. Eventually they calmed down and some kept vigil with him—for 45 hours and ten minutes, as it turned out. Like his other performances, Doomed was sculptural, in that it was “built” for a particular space and circumstance—in this case, the request of the curator that he not do something “short” because the museum expected a large crowd. “I thought—OK, I’ll start it, you end it. And that’s what the piece was about,” Burden said.4 He decided that when museum officials interfered with the piece in any way, it would end. He never told them this, of course, and never expected them to let it go on for days. When someone finally set a glass of water next to him after 45 hours, he got up, smashed the clock with a hammer, and walked out. Doomed was a classic gesture of passive aggression. By conceding that institutions and business people, not artists, have the power, Burden forced the museum officials to act as the authority figures they really were.

In smoking out who actually has control, Burden has driven some of the art world’s most charged taboos out of their hiding places. In the process, he made nerve-wracking demands. For Tower of Power, 1985, for example, he asked the Wadsworth Atheneum museum to borrow a million dollars worth of gold bricks. From this he built a pyramid for exhibit —to make this fantasy number literal. (It was quite unimposing, as it turned out.) But the museum, of course, had to hire extra security. And Tower made its point: if art is about money, why not just show the money? In 1981, with his materials budgets from the Centre Pompidou and the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England, Burden bought a little over an ounce of gold and a small diamond. In Paris, his performance consisted of melting and molding the gold into a small Napoleon figure that could have passed for a cheap souvenir (Napoleon d’Or, 1981). In England, while keeping the real diamond in his pocket, Burden suspended a worthless replica, spotlit, in a large light-tight room (Diamonds are Forever, 1981). Viewers, who had to enter one at a time, did not know it was fake. This was an exhibition about exhibitions, in which the “duped” spectators collaborated to ask some blunt questions. Is the artist supposed to play alchemist? Can a fake diamond, by virtue of its presentation, become more valuable than the real jewel hidden away? (And in Napoleon d’Or, was the “cheap” figurine, by virtue of the artist’s touch, now worth more than its weight in gold?) Does something become valuable if you’re told that it’s valuable? And is it even more valuable if you’re told that it’s art? Contributing their own unwitting coda to the diamond project, the angryboard of directors at the Ikon Gallery who financed it met to determine whether the artist had defrauded them. According to Howard Singerman’s account, “The board it seems, expected Burden to purchase materials that would be worthless until he had transformed them.” Burden, for his part, lays the board’s ire at the fact that he didn’t display the real diamond. In any case, as Singerman continues, “The curator finally received special permission to issue a check to a local jeweler; no such permission would have been necessary for the local lumberyard.”5 Naturally, Burden kept the real diamond.

As the artist increasingly removed his body and presence from the performance, he continued, at times, to wage psychological warfare with the institutions that sought his work. In 1985, with Samson, he created a sculpture with the potential literally to destroy a museum. Samson connected a turnstile, through intermediate gears, to two massive timbers pushing against the bearing walls of Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery. (Burden had first proposed the piece to the Oakland Museum, which turned it down.) Every visitor had to pass through the turnstile, whose movement increased the pressure on the 100-ton jack between the timbers. If enough visitors passed through, the accumulated pressure would actually bring down the building. Crude and clunky, its gears exposed, Samson looked less like art than the insidious machinery it really was. Burden had nicknamed it “The Museum Buster.” In Exposing the Foundation of the Museum, 1986, Burden did exactly that—to the architectural foundation of the Temporary Contemporary building of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. He took away a 52-by-16-foot section of the concrete floor and dug down, installing three stairways so visitors could descend to the spot where the concrete footings met earth. A visitor might be reminded that the rest of the floor could go just as easily: dust-to-dust, what-goes-up-comes-down. Or the visitor might find comfort in the evidence of how deep the artist had to dig to find the “raw” elements that supported the institution. In either case, Exposing the Foundation disrupted the conventional museum experience, and made the viewer complicit with this project.

That’s what Burden did in projects outside the art-world: brought a little jolt to an unsuspecting audience. In Dos Equis, 1972, he blocked a road in Laguna Beach, California, with two giant Xs he’d made from 16-foot timbers soaked in gasoline. He set them on fire and left, creating a powerful image for one driver to encounter. In Coals to Newcastle, 1978, he flew a model airplane—its cargo tiny marijuana bombs and some messages (e.g., Fúmenlos Muchachos, or “smoke it, kids”)—over the fence separating the United States from Mexico. And he bought television advertising time to run, over the course of a month, a ten-second clip of Through the Night Softly, 1973, the performance in which he had crawled through broken glass. In each of these pieces Burden looked for the “logic” ordering the system (highway, border, television), then disrupted it in order to make it visible. With the first two, that was easy. But television can absorb anything it’s fed. At the same time, television has codes, even in terms of how scenes are lit. Through the Night Softly must have looked like an aberration. A man is injuring himself, but there’s no narrative, no editing, no packaging, no moral—and nothing for sale. We, like Burden, can only fantasize about the reactions of the “audience” for such interventions. But if anyone looked up and said, “What was that?” the art succeeded. Burden hoped to crack the veneer of official reality, if only for a single individual in a single moment.

Burden has consistently examined the power of the individual to control his own destiny—or to have any impact at all—in a corporate high-tech world. At perhaps the height of his performance-art notoriety in the mid ’70s, he built himself a working one-person car (B-Car, 1975), and literally re-invented the first crude television (C.B.T.V., 1977). Burden sought to demystify these objects that most people couldn’t make but can’t live without. So he’d “solved” the car and the television, one-on-one. But so what? What meaning does individuality have anymore? A one-man factory has no impact on the corporations that manufacture cars and televisions. Of the tiny matchstick men surrounding his Tower of Power, Burden says they illustrate that “our lives are transient and consumable in relationship to the ascribed lasting power of gold.” In 747, 1973, he fired several shots with a pistol at a passing airplane, the Lilliputian gesture of one man against the world. The shots were more ridiculous than menacing, and this fantasy skyjacker-without-a-cause didn’t even have a demand—his act was pure frustration.

Since 1981, Burden has been creating his own huge strike force of model planes, ships, and submarines. In All the Submarines of the United States of America, 1987, he’s back to concretizing a quantity, this time thetotal number of subs ever launched by the government, all 625 of them. His 625 cardboard miniatures suspended from the ceiling look, from afar, like a large school of tiny fish. Up close, they resemble a flotilla of floating toys. Does this make the U.S. submarine fleet more real to us, or less? Paradoxically, works such as this, including A Tale of Two Cities, 1981—a massive installation of warring city states—cannot create an atmosphere of risk commensurate with the risks they address. One needs time, for example, to study A Tale, a piece so large in area it can be viewed in detail only through binoculars. Here, Burden has elaborated a whole history of military technology, from primitive canoes to sophisticated robots. But ultimately, this display of the obsession, organization, money, time, and imagination devoted to war, since the cave, doesn’t arouse fear. The corporate and military powers still seem faceless and remote, and we encounter them indirectly, not through the gut. For most Americans, tanks and robots are most real as childhood toys. It’s difficult, then, when confronting these pieces, to overcome the sensation of nostalgic pleasure, and the fascination that attends looking at almost anything in miniature.

Certain fictions still rule us. When Burden built his installation called The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, 1979, he showed us exactly what the Pentagon’s reasons for that weapon looked like. He laid out 50,000 nickels, each with a matchstick “cannon,” each representing a Russian tank. Along with the numbers, he was exposing a whole ideology of power, a belief in deterrence and ultimate weapons. When he had himself crucifiedacross the top of a Volkswagen, he took the West’s most hallowed industrial and religious icons and conflated them, producing an image both terrifying and absurd. The artist became one—not with the universe—but with the machinery, which ran its motor at full-throttle “screaming for me.” It was heresy.

And Burden’s work is terrorism. One can read the whole resume that way, with its brinksmanship (Prelude), top secrets (The Confession), surveillance (Jaizu), camouflage (Garcon!), ambush (Dos Equis), hostage-taking (La Chiaraficazione), infiltration (the TV ads), raids (Coals to Newscastle), and time bombs (Samson). But this is terrorism with an R.S.V.P. For as we, his spectators, contemplate the turnstile or the bucket with the live wire, we know our decisions will have real consequences. While Burden’s work exposes power without judging it, his project is not amoral—it forces the moralizing onto us. Sooner or later, we will have to decide. And usually sooner.

It’s an emergency.

C. Carr is a staff writer for the Village Voice. She contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. Quoted in Roger Ebert, “Art of Fear and Pain,” Chicago Sun-Times, April 8, 1975, p. 31.

2. Quoted in Robert Horvitz, “Chris Burden,” Artforum XIV No. 9, May 1976, p. 25.

3. Quoted in Donald Carroll, “Chris Burden: Art on the Firing Line,” Coast, August, 1974.

4. In a conversation with the author, April 28, 1989, New York City.

5. Howard Singerman, “Chris Burden’s Pragmatism,” in Chris Burden: A Twenty Year Survey, pp. 24–25.

“Chris Burden: A Twenty-Year Survey” premiered at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, California, last year and can be seen at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, through September 30. All quotations from the artist in this article, other than those cited below, appear in the exhibition catalogue.