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Whenever I get really immersed in studying Chris Burden’s career it begins to mess with my head a little. My husband could tell you that my fascination sometimes hits fever quality, and I’ll spend days reading every word I can find, speculating, changing my mind, refining my picture of the staggering body of work produced by the man. This has been one of those weeks.

This afternoon I came across a film that I had heard existed, but did not know was posted on the internet. It is a 35 minute video, narrated by Burden himself and featuring footage of several of his own performances between 1971 and 1974. I watched it. It was magnetic and repelling at the same time.

I had to pop open wordpress and write before the magic faded. Two parts of the video held me spellbound, the very beginning and the very end.

The video opens with a somewhat painful explanation by Burden of what you are about to see and why these clips exist. I have been reading articles on Chris Burden for eight years. Almost every one describes him as “shy”. I never believed it. I mean, come on — this is Chris Burden, the reckless, the bold! He can’t possibly be shy. He has everyone hoodwinked! Maybe he does, but if it’s part of the persona, it was so convincing I almost couldn’t watch it. I found myself wanting to skip ahead, yet forcing myself to continue.

At the end of the video was the footage of “Velvet Water”. In this piece, Burden placed himself in the same room as his audience, but concealed behind a wall of lockers. The audience watched the performance on closed circuit monitors, while listening to the actual sounds coming from Burden only a few feet away. Again, something I’ve read about almost ad nauseum. I wasn’t prepared for the energy. I watched Burden plunge his head into a sink full of water and repeatedly attempt to breathe it. I know that it only lasted about five minutes. I know he survived. I know the outcome. I could barely watch it. I found my self covering my face and watching through my fingers, gasping every time he came up for air, and feeling intense guilt about breathing myself. I only persisted to the end out of a desire to experience the whole thing, all the way through. I can’t imagine what it was like to experience it in the same room, but I loved and hated it and even on film, I kept wishing someone would stop him.

I don’t know why I share all this but to say, maybe one of these days I’ll figure out why I’m mesmerized by Chris Burden. Maybe one of these days I’ll begin to make art that creates that kind of energy. Maybe I won’t. But I know you need to go google him too. That kind of energy should be passed on.

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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.