PRINT December 2001


Chris Burden

Jan Tumlir looks back at the shot heard round the art world—Chris Burden’s 1971 performance piece, Shoot.

HAVING TRUDGED THROUGH the muted reliquary that was Paul Schimmel’s 1998 survey “Out of Actions” at LA MoCA, one local critic closed his review with the complaint, “You had to be there.” These familiar words of apology gain a particular poignancy when applied to the works of Chris Burden, which coax an often devastating lyricism from the discrepancy between an intense action and its openly insufficient record. Nowhere is this more evident than in the infamous Shoot, 1971, which yielded just a few grainy photographs and a terse description: “At 7:45pm I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket 22 long-rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me.”

Shoot took place not long after the Five-Day Locker Piece, 1971, which was in fact Burden’s MFA exhibition at University of California, Irvine, an exercise in confinement and sensory deprivation that developed an unforeseen social dimension by turning the artist into a captive audience for campus hall trawlers. Anticipating the possibility of reversal, perhaps, Burden made his next work extra-private. “I didn’t have a film crew from NBC or even a professional photographer there, just people that had actually been invited—mostly friends and their girlfriends. Those were the only people who witnessed it.” The rest of us would have to make do with their testimony. In the absence of any sort of performance artifact or “relic,” what little we are given is imbued with added urgency. “When I did a performance and there was a series of photographs,” Burden remembers, “I’d take them home and study them for a l-o-o-o-ng time. And usually I’d select one image to represent the whole thing.” Given the paucity of live viewers, the fact that Shoot was the artist’s breakthrough becomes highly ironic.

Of course, Burden had already gained notoriety in the then-happening Cal Irvine art department. Charles Christopher Hill, a painter and fellow student who wound up photographing some of the artist’s best-known early performances, recalls the steady procession of art-world luminaries through the campus. There were no tenured positions in those days, so faculty turnover was rapid. “You had all these artists come in, give their opinion and leave.” But they would always report back to their various galleries “what’s new, what weird new work they’d seen down at Irvine. . . . There was a buzz about the place.” That buzz was strong enough to lure curators, collectors, and critics from LA and even New York. (With the opening of the nearby Jack Glenn Gallery and the artist-run F Space, where Shoot was performed, there was no shortage of showcases for so-called early work.) Student careerism, generally decried as a hallmark of the present age, was apparently well under way at the start of the ’70s. At twenty-five, Burden secured a choice spot in “Body Movements,” a 1971 show of Minimal and Conceptual art at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, alongside such already established figures as Bruce Nauman and Burden’s old Pomona College undergraduate professor Mowry Baden.

According to Burden, though, it was a “Man of the Year”–type piece in Esquire in 1973 that exerted the greatest impact. Titled “Proof That the Seventies Have Finally Begun,” it placed the artist among an oddly appropriate rogues’ gallery of zeitgeist-shapers that included Neal E. Miller, a psychophysiologist who spoke of a future moment when it would be possible “to lower our blood pressure by an act of will,” and L. Patrick Gray III, J. Edgar Hoover’s replacement at the FBI, who advised his staff to read his favorite book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, to get their “minds to soar.”

“I’ll never forget the first I heard of [the Esquire story],” Burden reflects. “I went to a photo store on Pico Boulevard and the guy behind the counter says, ’You’re f-a-a-a-mous!’ From there, all the magazines picked up on it: Newsweek, High Times, Penthouse, whatever.” But even while ascending to the status of a certified Famous Artist, Burden knew that the essential part of Shoot would belong to him alone. No doubt the inherent selfishness of the work contributed to the storm of controversy. “I remember being interviewed on TV by Regis Philbin. He says, ’What kind of art is this?’ and I tell him that I’m gonna be a big deal someday, and he’s kind of dubious. The next guest they had on was the chief of police, and Regis was going, ’Was that legal? What d’ya think about a guy who goes out and shoots himself?’ He was really upset.” At the same time, Shoot is uniquely accessible as art, a kind of updated High Noon that is as much about the camera as the gun. Once the day and hour were set and witnesses notified, Burden slipped into what Walter Benjamin called “tragic time”—time experienced in all its fullness because it is on a countdown. “The very instant the work is made,” the artist has stated, “it starts to become a myth.”

Burden recalls being interviewed by the police at the hospital after Shoot. “I made up some story about a hunting accident and they’re going, ’How’s your wife?’ They were convinced that my wife had shot me. They basically knew there was something fishy going on. . . . To this day people are still pissed off.”

Jan Tumlir, a writer based in Los Angeles, teaches art and film theory at the California Institute of the Arts and the Art Center College of Design.

In this monthly column, Artforum talks with renowned artists about the incident or encounter that first brought them public recognition.