New York

Chris Burden

Ronald Feldman Gallery

If you take seriously Morse Peckham’s antiformalist stance that the artist is “raging for chaos” rather than order, Chris Burden might bethought a good example. But is he? Is Burden really stepping out of line? Isn’t Burden playing with danger—for example, shooting and attempting to electrocute himself? Isn’t he involved in game-playing that is not only tokenly dangerous and significant within art? Shooting himself through the arm, as gory color photographs of Burden’s best-known work Shoot bear record, would in another context group him with Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, alongside the comparatively gentle self-biting of Acconci, or the more Angst-ridden, mysterious dead German artist Schwarzkogler, who sequentially mutilated his own penis. Burden, to his credit, stays above the belt. One trouble with the more sensational of Burden’s art of rule violation, rather than rule extension, is that violation quickly becomes a rule. You expect Burden to test or damage himself forevermore.

No one’s in any danger in the gallery anyway. Neither Burden nor you. Books, texts, and video are harmless. Burden’s just showing two identical loose-leaf folders of things he’s done. Each folder is displayed on a single table with a single chair. Photographs and texts document in Huebler-like style Burden’s exploits from 1971–73. Two interviews, one a written blow-up from Avalanche on the wall and the other a color video from a Los Angeles TV talk show, constitute the rest of the show. The only dangers Burden faces are, first, the watering down of his pieces’ power by their purist Conceptual gallery model, making them seem respectable and dated and, second, the danger of keeping his integrity intact from the thrusts of the talk-show host Regis Philbin. Philbin, in the course of the interview, tries—unsuccessfully—three times, I think, to get Burden to risk electrocution by the studio staff muttering willingness in the background.

The interview was a study in contrasts: Burden, quiet, in blue jeans, elflike, with close cropped hair, patiently dealing with a loud, tartan-jacketed, chunky, Tony Curtised Philbin, who was alternatively trying to stab him first with ebullience, then incredulousness, then clichés. “I don’t know Chris, I’m just sitting here. I’ve never heard of such things.” Or, talking of Burden’s assistant in Shoot Philbin said: “He did a lousy job, he was only supposed to graze it. He nearly took your arm off. ” The pain on Burden’s face was apparent throughout. If Phyllis Lutjeans—to whom Burden did what he called a “simulated TV High-Jack” by holding a knife to her throat during a live show—was anything like Regis Philbin, his act becomes more understandable, if not excusable. Moral questions raised about Burden’s view of danger as a cathartic force—he describes it “as a way of releasing energy”—are too complex to but hint at. The Bergsonian way back to reality by “destroying our perception of it by violating conventional habits” is interesting, but generative of the harmless “brain storming” of Synectics as well as the more questionable exaltation of evil of a Genet, both intent on viewing a “world made strange.” Burden’s works—such as I Became a Secret Hippie where he changed his identity temporarily, Five Day Locker Piece where he sensorily deprived himself for five days in a locker, Deadman where he challenged social mores by playing dead in the street, thereby getting himself a three-day trial, or BC Mexico where he did a Robinson Crusoe stint—seem more in line with the neoprimitivism of a Norman Mailer. Instead of fleeing from the violence and irrationality of the world, Mailer’s way back to life and creativity is to pass through violence and irrationality. Burden’s apparent decision to encourage the psychopath in himself is not so different.

More interesting than the danger aspect of Burden’s work, clearly an issue in actual performance, is his use of media. Burden gives dramatic emphasis to a point that has been emerging for the last few years. Since artists deliberately make their own publicity—most of Burden’s pieces are made outside the gallery with an eye on the press—documented Conceptual verité style of good photographic Gestalts and punchy copy—the old rules about pregallery publicity being extrinsic to the art itself, and, therefore, not important, no longer apply. Leaks have become as much a part of art as they have of politics. Publicity about Burden’s work is a large part of the work. And Burden is good at it. You’ll Never See My Face In Kansas City, for example, is just a great one-liner. So is the matching photo of Burden in a ski mask, having the topicality of bank robbery and streaking. Violating cultural or art rules is only significant, though, if it’s not only done, seen to be done, but above all recorded as been done. If the Dadaists merely flouted convention, contemporary artists are more sophisticated about getting it on record. In another area, Lenny Bruce only gained national prominence when he started “talking dirty”—only meaning he cut the crap. To catch the media’s eye Burden obviously felt he had to do something a bit strong. How many artists make Esquire, L.A. talk shows, as well as Artforum?

––James Collins