By Gregory Crofton
A promotional still for the new documentary “BURDEN” shows artist Chris Burden wearing Speedos with his hands tied behind his back. He’s lying on his chest, struggling across a parking lot covered in broken glass using his hips, legs and feet to squirm his way forward. The image is part of a piece of performance art Burden made in 1973 called “Through the Night Softly.”
Burden had the piece filmed and paid for it to be broadcast five times a week for a month on television after the 11 p.m. news in Los Angeles. This was not the only time in Burden’s career he used television to make his mark. But this piece could certainly be used as a metaphor for Burden’s determination to make a name for himself, and a living, in the art world.
“BURDEN,” a 90-minute documentary directed by Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey, serves as a fascinating primer on this artist’s work. It surveys his career by interviewing fellow artists who knew Burden and mined archival footage of Burden speaking about various performance pieces. The doc also presents a wealth of video and still photography from his projects including “SHOOT” (1971). It was his most notorious piece, in which his friend (a trained sniper) shot him in the upper arm from close range. The wound ended up healing fine, and the stunt did help jumpstart his career.
Burden didn’t figure out he wanted to be a professional artist until after he had earned an undergraduate degree studying physics and architecture and took a position at an architectural firm. He quit the job after realizing that some of the best young minds in the country were occupying their days designing bathrooms. So he went back to school to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from University of California, Irvine.
Burden chose sculpture. Once he decided performance art was essentially living sculpture, and something affordable compared to the cost of building an art installation, he dove into it. His first live piece was “Five Day Locker Piece” (1971), and it earned him his MFA. He squeezed himself inside a 2′ x 2′ x 2′ locker where he stayed for five days.
His performance art continued for about five years, with “SHOOT” attracting attention from GQ and other members of the national media. Some labeled him a masochist, others an artistic Evel Knievel.
“That was one of the reasons I stopped doing performance,” Burden says in the film. “I could see if I kept along that path I would be fulfilling some of the criticism. So I think actually the publicity I got helped me to change direction.”
Being able to witness this artistic evolution is what makes “BURDEN” so enjoyable to watch. You see Burden experience a dark period following his abandonment of performance art and the end of his first marriage. According to friends and fellow artists, he played up the rock star side of his youth, clinging to guns, drugs and strange behavior.
Eventually Burden found stability in a new place, a 10-acre spread he bought west of Los Angeles in Topanga Canyon. It’s there that the filmmakers show the artist at peace and hard at work on projects like “URBAN LIGHTS” (2008), a street lamp installation in downtown Los Angeles that’s quickly become iconic for residents and visitors. “BURDEN” is fascinating journey. Find out more about the film, and where you can see it, here.