Antwerp, Belgium

Chris Burden

After nearly four decades, Chris Burden is still best known for his early 1970s performances, which continue to influence new generations of artists. Seeing the filmed performance Shoot, 1971, again at the Middelheim Museum, one realized that the raw power of the action remains intact after all these years. The piece marked a radical shift in the relationship between artist and spectator: The audience became accomplices instead of innocent viewers. But most disturbing of all was the filmed performance Velvet Water, 1974, thanks to a contemporary resonance that could not have been imagined at the time. In a room next to an auditorium, a group of spectators at the Art Institute of Chicago could see on several television monitors how the artist was, as he announced, going to “breathe water.” For an unbearable number of minutes, the audience watched live on the screens and listened from the room next to the auditorium as Burden nearly suffocated, until he couldn’t take it any longer. Viewing these images now, in 2009, the association with waterboarding and torture was unavoidable. A thirty-five-year-old performance suddenly became a reflection on ethics and politics in the present.

In other works on view, the link with the present was even more obvious. Clips like TV Ad, 1973, or Chris Burden Promo, 1976, embodied Burden’s desire to infiltrate the mainstream media without giving up his radical methodology. By buying ten seconds of television advertisement time on a local Los Angeles channel and using it to show, without any comment, an excerpt from Through the Night Softly, 1973, in which Burden, nearly naked, crawled through fifty feet of broken glass, the artist brilliantly subverted commercial television. The average American could see this disturbing image squeezed between an ad for a soul-music compilation album and a commercial for Safeguard deodorant.

But, as George Michael said, “let’s go outside.” Middelheim is mainly an open-air museum, and challenging performances such as Bed Piece, 1972, Through the Night Softly, or Back to You, 1974, although shown in the rather overbearing classical space of the Middelheim castle, strongly contextualized what was happening outside. In the beautiful Middelheim gardens, more than three thousand people gathered to watch what would be Antwerp’s cultural media event of the year. Burden didn’t need to buy television time anymore: The national news channels and newspaper journalists were there, reporting on the live installation of a large-scale, Abstract Expressionist sculpture. A nearly 150-foot-high crane dropped 118 metal beams, each sixteen to sixty feet long and weighing up to 2,650 pounds, into a box of wet concrete and sand. Every time a beam was dropped into the concrete, the audience cheered and applauded. This was Burden’s third “Beam Drop” sculpture, the first having been made in 1984 at Artpark, Lewiston, New York, and the second last year in Brazil at the Instituto Inhotim, Minas Gerais. But this version took place as a massive performance with thousands of spectators. The event lasted for over twelve hours, after which Burden and the crew decided that the work was completed, leaving behind a new sculpture amid works by Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, Franz West, and Juan Muñoz. Although Beam Drop Antwerp is the result of a loosely controlled combination of accidents, the sculpture can easily compete with the impressive collection at the Middelheim Museum. The paradox in Burden’s long career is that in his early performances he used his own body as material for his art; nowadays he achieves an even more physical experience using metal and concrete.

Jos Van den Bergh