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My Favorite Artists You’ve Never Heard Of (Chris Burden, Part 1)

September 2, 2011

We were sitting around on the mismatched furniture that had collected in the painting studio, having the discussion that began every Painting II class. The professor expected us to broaden our knowledge of contemporary art. To that end he required his art students to write ten page papers about living artists. I remember frantically trying to write down all the artists he was suggesting as topics. Somewhere in the list was “…and Chris Burden. This guy shot himself in the arm and called it art…” Whaaa? I googled him as soon as I got back to the dorm. He’s been my favorite artist ever since.

Summarizing Chris Burden is impossible. Hitting the highlights would be something of a joke. Looking back, I realize that I was able to write about him in only ten pages simply because I was almost completely ignorant of the scope and depth of his career.

I’m hoping to simply whet your appetite with a few of his pieces that have inspired me, and let you discover his career on your own as I did. He has worked in mediums from performance to erector sets. His permanent outdoor installations can be seen all over the country, but I’ll show you a glimpse.

You can’t talk about Chris Burden without mentioning “Shoot”. This is the piece that propelled him to legendary status in the 70s. In his own words: “In Shoot, I’m shot in the upper left-hand arm by a friend of mine with a 22 rifle.” In later interviews, he explained that at the time, everyone was getting shot, worried about getting shot or talking about getting shot. Everyone wondered what it felt like. So he decided to do it as a performance. Listen to him narrate and see the tiny fragment of video documentation here.

My personal favorites out of Burden’s performance pieces are the ones that explore viewer interaction and responsibility. How far should we allow a performer to go? Do we have an obligation to stop him? In typical abandonment, he occasionally placed his life in the hands of his viewers to drive home this point. One of these pieces was “Prelude to 220, or 110”. Burden’s dry statement: “I was strapped to the floor with copper bands bolted into the concrete. Two buckets of water with live 110 lines submerged in them were placed near me. The piece was performed from 8-10 p.m. for three nights.” In the unlikely event that a spectator had chosen to tip over one of the buckets, Burden would have died.

Next post we’ll explore some of Burden’s bridges and mechanical pieces.

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3 Responses to “My Favorite Artists You’ve Never Heard Of (Chris Burden, Part 1)”


  1. His work reminds me of Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm series. In one performance she placed 72 objects, including a gun and a single bullet, on a table and allowed her audience to use them in any way they wanted to. Apparently the audience became pretty aggressive, sticking rose thorns into her skin and aiming the gun at her head. Scary stuff.

    I’ve never heard of Chris Burden before, really interesting work. Great post!


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