Chris Burden was constantly asking, “What can art be?” “If art was violent, painful, or scared the shit out of you, is that art?”
If you’ve been to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or the LACMA, on Miracle Mile, you’ve seen the exhibition “Urban Lights”– a cluster of lamp posts just outside of the museum’s entrance. This installation, which consists of 202 authentic street lamps from the 1920s and 1930s, has been a tourist attraction and talking point since its creation in 2008, some even calling it the symbol of Los Angeles. The documentary “Burden” explores the unconventional life of the “Urban Lights” creator Chris Burden, a former resident of Topanga Canyon and world-renowned performance artist whose career was made from controversy and shock value.
In this compelling portrait, filmmakers Richard Dewey and Timothy Marrinan delve deep into the artist’s past for a glimpse into the eclectic and eccentric life of Chris Burden. From his early days as an art student at UC Irvine, Burden was an unconventional guy. One assignment he called “5-Day Locker Piece” consisted of him caged in a 2′ x 2′ x 2′ university locker for 5 days. His peers thought he was crazy, but brilliant. His professors called him “A walking slap in the face.” And while his performances may have raised eyebrows both in and out of the art world, there was no denying that Chris Burden was a pioneer.
He may have compared himself to Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, and other great artists of all time, but unlike the spectator approach we take in viewing those great works, Burden’s talent forced the viewer to be physically active in the experience. He gravitated toward avant-garde sculpture work, living on the edge of sadomasochism and coming close to death many times for the sake of his piece. He did it all, from being shot in the arm to nailing his palms to the back of a running car for hours (which David Bowie alludes to in his song ‘Joe the Lion’ off his 1977 album ‘Heroes’), Burden was known for eliciting the energy in everyone around him.
His wild personality attracted attention, but it was his true talent that made him an artist.
“Burden” is able to share many stories from the artist’s past through interviews with Chris himself and those who knew him well. Roger Ebert called him a “strange kind of importance” in a profile piece he wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times. His wife talked about her anxiety when Chris would self-harm in the name of art. In one art piece, titled “The Confession,” Chris confessed to an extramarital affair, a fact his wife was totally unaware of, prior to watching his performance. The anecdotes relived by those who knew him, including past teachers, classmates, and fellow performance artist Marina Abramovic, are entertaining, cringe-worthy, and darkly humorous.
Chris Burden was constantly asking, “What can art be?” “If art was violent, painful, or scared the shit out of you, is that art?” He set out to answer those questions through his various projects and crossed the boundaries of “appropriate” too many times to count, but in doing so, he made a name for himself. Chris hated the comparison of him to the stuntman, Evel Knievel, a man he called “a trickster,” while he proudly considered himself as “real.” I have to admit that, after watching “Burden,” I would have to agree that Chris Burden was indeed the real deal.
Unfortunately, Chris died from cancer in 2015 at the age of 69 and just days shy of the unveiling of his last completed installation, “Ode to Santos Dumont.” His wild personality attracted attention, but it was his true talent that made him an artist. He left a legacy through his contribution of the LACMA’s “Urban Lights,” which is photographed almost as much as the Hollywood sign, but his true gift to the community has been his individuality and reminder to other artists to just be themselves.
“Burden” is not rated. 88 minutes. Opening at the Nuart Theater this Friday and now available on demand, iTunes and Amazon Video.