In 1971, Chris Burden asked an acquaintance to shoot at him with a rifle.
He later had his own hands nailed to the roof of a moving car, went without food or water for forty-five hours, and crawled through broken glass. Thankfully not at the same time. A seminal figure in 1970’s body and performance art, Burden was referred to by the press of the time as an “art-martyr,” and “the Evel Knievel of the art world” (much to his distaste).
Burden (2016) shrewdly navigates a daunting task: unpacking shades of meaning within and across its namesake’s body of work. Incredibly, documentarians Richard Dewey and Timothy Marrinan are succinct but never reductive in their analyses. Easier said than done. Burden started his career by stuffing himself inside a locker for five days. He ended it by constructing a zeppelin as an ode to a turn-of-the-century Brazilian aviator. Go figure.
The film parades an astute juxtaposition of archival interviews with the late Burden and contemporary interviews with former colleagues, ex-lovers, and art collectors, among others. Famed collector Larry Gagosian endorses Burden’s oeuvre whole heartedly, “grandmother of performance art” Marina Abramović states a preference for his early body art period, while caricature-of-a-luddite-critic Brian Sewell dismisses all of Burden’s art as a “silly thing people go to see.” Aside from those deviations, Dewey and Marrinan offer little dialogue between subject, talking head and the larger documentary voice.
By and large this assortment of talking heads emphasizes Burden’s long-standing desire to intimately involve the audience in his art. According to both Burden and Burden, art doesn’t happen until the viewer has walked around, played with, spoken to, or fretted over the safety of the art-object. This thesis holds up across Burden’s work: from the viewer’s trepidation and complicity watching the artist get shot in Shoot (1971), to their sense of wonder ambling around the labyrinthine kinetic sculpture that is Metropolis II (2011).
Dewey and Marrinan insist on preventing the film from calling attention to itself, yielding the spotlight to Burden. They keep a “straight” documentary style appropriately peppered with the expected uses of talking heads and B-roll. A reenactment of a scene from Burden’s childhood made to look like a crummy VHS recording stands out as an inspired creative choice. As does an intimate (but not explicit) home video of Burden with former lover and artist Alexis Smith.
As for the rest of this well-executed film, its standard operation procedure may be humble, but it does serve as a paradoxical distraction. These filmmakers delved into the depths of Burden’s bizarre life and iconoclastic informing ideologies, but surfaced with an aggressively agreeable presentation of it. A deliberate and not unreasonable choice. They clearly wanted me to exit the theater thinking of Burden and not Burden. But maybe if they got the two to rub up against each other, the late Burden would have approved.
That does make me a hypocrite. Instead of publishing this review, perhaps I should have crawled through shards of glass while yodelling it. Burden’s work reminds us that we often trap ourselves in aesthetic idioms that deny us affect in favor of propriety.