New York

Chris Burden

Zwirner & Wirth

Of all the art clamoring for attention in New York this fall, the most incisively current was a thing of the past. Chris Burden’s early work has a purchase on the contemporary in ways that are both revealing and overdetermined, making unmistakably clear that the history we thought we had transcended is still the long present in which we are mired. Conceived against a backdrop of inept and insidious foreign policy in Vietnam and the ceaseless televisual spectacle its insurrections set in motion, Burden’s work finds an eerie analogue in the sectarian violence of our own era of equivocation bereft of responsibility.

Polemical and clinical in equal measure, Burden’s work turns on ideas of violence and mass witness, empiricism and its social and somatic consequences. “Chris Burden: Early Work” played these leitmotifs for all they’re worth, and the result was a representational field as concretely public space where masochism and sadism were virtually indistinguishable. In the front gallery was Burden’s quaintly hand-painted The Deluxe Photo Book 1971–73 surrounded by its dissected contents—photographs and pithy texts—taxonomically and chronologically displayed on the adjacent walls. Page after page detailed such canonical performances as Five Day Locker Piece and Shoot (both 1971). Of the latter, Burden’s caption alongside his performance images efficiently details, “At 7:45 PM 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.” Despite Burden’s dispassionate brief, the performance’s ferocity almost overwhelms its frame, its power surviving intact the transcription into photographic and discursive documentation. The gunshot coincides with the click of the camera’s shutter, which itself becomes coincident with the shudder of the witness.

For all the grim humor and the pathosladen moments of barbed and explicit engagement, in these works inaction, or at least ineffectuality, is nonetheless rampant. Most telling of all is 747, 1973, which shows Burden taking benign pistol shots at a plane flying over a beach near Los Angeles International Airport. Elsewhere Burden’s lucid hypotheticals shade from deadpan “what if’s” to real, if no less ritualized, violence.

The exhibition’s other main component, the ostensibly postperformance but decidedly performative sculpture Samson, 1985, literalized the specter of culpability, restructuring the place of viewing as the site of imminent (if likely impossible) catastrophe. The visitor was forced to pass through a turnstile connected to a hundred-ton jack by a series of gears and straps in order to gain access to a treasure trove of Plexiglas entombed artifacts (or “relics” in Burden’s lexicon) beyond. These laconic reserves included the tarp blanket from Dead Man, 1972, that had once covered a prostrate Burden, flanked by flares, on the side of La Cienega Boulevard, and the nails that had affixed him to the hood of a Volkswagen in Trans-Fixed, 1974. With each click of the turnstile, Samson’s jack imperceptibly expands, and if enough people pass through it the work could destroy the building. Far-fetched as this scenario might be, its potentiality is commensurate with its effects, symbolic and otherwise. Ethics are made inextricable from seeing and passive spectatorship is finally all but disenfranchised, and for all the talk that seems precisely the point.

Suzanne Hudson