Chris Burden—The Performance of a Lifetime
“Chris Burden: Extreme Measures” opens at the New Museum today, a colossal show that is this father of performance art’s first New York survey. Using the entire space of the Museum, it is also the first undertaking of its kind for them. When you see the body of Burden’s work together like this, you begin to understand why it was so important that an exhibition of this caliber happen. The work of Chris Burden spans four decades, beginning with performance extremism (the photo above: Trans-fixed, 1974; Burden had himself crucified, nails in palms, to the back of a VW Beetle), and eventually moving on from mental and physical feats, to intellectual and mechanical works. His performance art addresses ideas of limits and containment, while his installations seek to demonstrate potentials—good, bad, and useless. Yet no matter how insane these acts and objects may seem, and despite his attempts to reconcile with freedom and assimilate with a perspective above the fray, the nature of his work would imply an imposed structure; the artist’s vision.
Performance art in and of its self is a creative practice that pushes boundaries—the artists and the viewers. These limits are both self imposed, and group imposed. There are as many ideas as to why we impose boundaries, as there are ways to break through them. Just as art is not an answer, but rather an object for further contemplation; to ponder the idea, is an act of boundary placement; to contain. When something is a free-radical we cannot completely understand it, because we cannot see where it begins and where it ends, in a one-perspective glance. I Imagine if most of us let go of our boundaries without having some sort of structure to navigate this new territory, it would make a very loud pop, and all of our brains and common sense would leak out, for the most part, slowing to a climatic ooze as the last bit of sanity slowly left our body.
What Would Possess Someone to…
So is Chris Burden a mad man? Well from the various dialogue recordings, Burden sounds very meditated. As he describes Shoot (He had himself shot with a gun) in a 10 minute BBC interview from 2012, or in his narration of footages of Documentation of Selected works 1971-1974 of his performances, he sounds like a man with a methodology. From what I have heard, he is a fascinating speaker. Yet the method can only apply to the birth of the idea, and making it happen. After that what is obvious about his earlier performative work shown, is that the result was anyone’s guess.
But what is that method, other than Burden sounding methodical? What keeps him from absolute insanity, and stable in “artists-mind” before, during, and after dragging his naked body through broken glass? Lisa Phillips would not have seen the show finally come into being if Burden was insane. Eccentric perhaps. The effort put forth, that she so eloquently described at the press preview, was an absolute massive undertaking. Work brought in from different states, months of restoration, weeks of installations, and although I hear Chris opted out of any audio recordings or meetings with the press today—this, I believe, is more aligned with his anti-market approach, that Lisa ascribed to the installations challenging process: the work is tough to move, tough to install.
Back to my question, what is Burden’s method? Well, this writer believes that it’s true, creativity and spirituality are one in the same, and art is as much a spiritual practice, as it is a creative one. Particularly Eastern practices teach you to let it all go, including fear, which can make you a useless lump of human. The difference between most art and spiritual practices, is that art comes from the artist’s perspective—a spiritual practice comes from no single person’s perspective.
Burden’s perspective, is simply vision, and foresight. I think that’s what has guided him, in the aftermath of his physical torments. You see Chris knew, (I am hypothesizing) that when he had contemplated ‘Why do we build bombs?’ he was also contemplating ‘What does it feel like to get shot by a gun?’ Empathy isn’t always easily achieved, having yourself shot with a gun as an experiment, in this context, is probably one of the most heroic anti-violence (anti-apathy) stances ever.
Chris Burden is no spiritual philosopher, but he does have a method, it seems, of going beyond limits, taking (as the Exhibition title tells us) “Extreme Measures.” There is conviction in his work, again the earlier works are demonstrative of this in a biological manner. This is less a character judgement, than it is a remark on his ability to continue to be a relevant artist, having inspired three generations of performance artists.
Burden’s early work that focused on his performance, will make you question what a human being can endure, by witnessing what the artist endures. A himself, sets himself on fire, and you procrastinate going to the gym, or lifting a finger to help your neighbor? You tremble at the words of Republicans who threaten you with the fear of God, “We will shut down the government, if things don’t remain the same!”
More photos, more Douglas: