Though he enjoyed a diverse career that spanned several decades, Chris Burden will most likely always be known for his early performance pieces, some of the most extreme the art world has ever seen. In his most notorious work, 1971’s Shoot, Burden had an assistant shoot him in the arm from a distance with a rifle. Other pieces of the period featured Burden slithering across a floor covered in broken glass (1973’s Through the Night Softly), being nailed to a Volkswagen Beetle (1974’s Trans-Fixed), and laying under a pane of glass without food or water for nearly two full days (1975’s Doomed). Such dangerous actions earned Burden a quasi-celebrity status, including numerous write-ups in the mainstream press, a TV interview with Regis Philbin, and even a reference to his work in a David Bowie song.
If a simple description of Burden’s most outrageous work suggests that he was some kind of half-mad thrill-seeker (“the Evel Knievel of Art” as he was sometimes called), Richard Dewey and Timothy Marrinan’s Burden proves its subject to be a serious, complicated, and surprisingly introspective figure, one whose early provocations weren’t mere shock tactics but an attempt to distill art down into an essential idea. A thoughtful, inquisitive documentary, Burden dispenses with the sensationalism surrounding Burden’s most notorious work and instead engages with it on its own terms, attempting to explore the very questions Burden himself was asking in these pieces about the nature of art and the permeable boundaries between performance and life.
Cutting back and forth between a semi-chronological overview of Burden’s work and footage of the artist taken shortly before his death in 2015, Dewey and Marrinan present a stark contrast between the young Burden, an intense, often troubled kid unafraid to die for his art, and the older Burden, a quiet oddball making massive sculptures out of found objects and children’s toys in his secluded studio in California’s Topanga Canyon. With his slightly wild eyes and crooked grin, Burden looks a bit like Clint Howard in old age. It can be hard to believe that this is the same man who once pulled a knife on an unwitting TV host for the sake of a performance piece, and it’s even harder to believe that works like a giant Erector Set tower or an arrangement of lampposts are the product of the same artistic mind that conceived Shoot.
While it offers a comprehensive overview of Burden’s oeuvre, the film provides little sense of historical perspective for his work. Undiscussed are the artist’s forbears, such as the extremist Vienna Actionists or the minimalist group Fluxus, both of whom anticipated some of the directions that Burden’s performance art would take, thereby giving the impression that the man’s work sprung from his head fully formed without influence or precedent. But what the film lacks in broader context, it makes up for in its exploration of the psychological and biographical aspects of Burden’s art, suggesting at one point that his violent performances were a reaction to a repressed upbringing and linking his sculptural work to an early interest in architecture. If Burden nevertheless remains an elusive figure, that seems appropriate for an artist who always preferred his work to speak for itself.