Though he’ll probably always be best known for some notorious performance pieces early in his career—notably the one in which he had a friend shoot him in a gallery—artist Chris Burden had a long career of diverse and ambitious work. It gets a fitting appreciation in Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey’s documentary “Burden,” which like its recently deceased subject is coolly disinclined to foist specific meanings on some still-controversial artistic gestures. Despite (or even partly because of) that diffident air, a portrait of the artist emerges that’s complex, somewhat mysterious, but ultimately quite winning. It should have a healthy fest run before exiting primarily to educational and artscaster shelf life, with minor theatrical exposure possible.
We learn relatively little about Burden’s background, apart from one sibling’s observation that their shared upbringing (quarreling, distant parents, frequent family uprootings) provided all the ingredients needed to create antisocial, misanthropic adults. Initially attracted to architecture, then sculpture (two things that would surface again to dominate his later work), he nonetheless first drew attention with a series of live performances that began while he was among the earliest students in UC Irvine’s graduate art program. There, he squeezed himself into a two-foot-square studio locker for five days as one “piece.” In another, he simply disappeared for a long spell without telling anyone, then returned to inform them that his absence had been the “art.”
A strain of “dangerous, crazy” risk ran through many such early works, including one involving his potential electrocution, and another requiring his hands being nailed to the rear exterior of a VW. Most infamous, of course, was 1971’s “Shoot”—where he was shot (while being videotaped) by an ex-military pal in the Santa Ana gallery he’d co-founded. Intended just to graze, the bullet instead went right through his arm.
Such antics got him labeled an “art-martyr” and “Evel Knievel of the art world.” He always seemed ambivalent about such ambulance-chasing media attention, however, and eventually irked by the inescapable image he’d otherwise abandoned by the end of the 1970s. Asked about these early works’ meaning, he’s seen on TV shrugging “I don’t think my pieces always provide answers, they just ask questions. I think that’s what art is about—it doesn’t have a ‘purpose.’”
Many colleagues, collectors and academics here credit Burden with being a big player in the era’s exploding of conventional notions of what constituted “art.” His main detractor is late British critic Brian Sewell, who sniffs “That’s not art…it’s just a silly thing people go to see.” (Surely it’s no accident that the doc chooses as its sole significant naysayer a virtual caricature of old-school cultural snobbery, complete with the plummiest toff accent imaginable.)
According to some observers, Burden was actually quite stable in his private life when making his most outrageous public art. But after a move to New York and the disintegration of his first marriage in the mid-’70s, he ran somewhat amuck — growing too fond of various substances (and running around with an Uzi). The purchase of some then well-secluded acres in Topanga Canyon, where he remained until his death from cancer last year at age 69, proved a good move.
While never as publicity-magnetizing as the likes of “Shoot,” his later installation works were often monumental in scale and delightful to behold. A hymn to L.A.’s auto-centrism, 2011’s “Metropolis II” is a massive, intricate version of a child’s toy-car track; 202 antique streetlamps comprise the beloved “Urban Light,” permanently installed outside the L.A. County Museum of Art. In contrast to the repellent fascination of the work he became famous for, these recent sculptures aim to welcome and enchant viewers.
Hardly a confessionally inclined subject in the considerable interview footage compiled before his demise, Burden comes off as someone who “didn’t intentionally set out to be difficult,” but by later life found tranquility on both the personal and professional planes. His intimates don’t spill much dirt either, though they do have some amusing stories to tell. “His life is his art,” someone inevitably notes here. In glimpsing the doc’s larger picture, one can better grasp how art that sometimes once seemed masochistic or simply attention-getting makes sense in an overall arc that proceeded quite logically from early expressions of internal/external strife to eventual, playful harmoniousness.
Burden’s career was well-documented (the ’70s being the pioneer era for video art), with much archival material made good use of here. Though some will be attracted by whimsical folk-pop musician Andrew Bird’s contributions to the soundtrack, more distinctive are a few oldies, including one great David Bowie cut (“Joe the Lion”) that was among several rock songs directly inspired by the subject.