Burden (2017)

May 2nd, 2017
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Directors: Timothy Marrinan, Richard Dewey | 89min | Biopic Doc | US

Often known as the Evil Knevil of performance art, the charismatic sculptor Chris Burden emerges as the ultimate control freak in this entertaining documentary by co-directers Dewey and Marrinan that will interest art-lovers and cineastes alike. Burden burst on to the art scene in early 1970s California and seemed to derive most of his satisfaction from the dynamic behaviour (and often angst) provoked by his outlandish ‘pieces’ which often involved violence and danger – mostly to himself, although he did once pull a dagger in a TV interview “for the sake of art”.

Rejecting the Evil Knevil tag, claiming he was certainly not a trickster, Burden was interested in creating art that couldn’t be bought or sold thereby gaining control of his own work as a reaction to the inflated art scene of the 1970s. Chris Burden died in 2015 just five days before the opening of his final peaceful  ‘Ode to Santos Dumont’ a motorised illuminated balloon, he is probably best remembered for having a friend graze his arm with a rifle, in the name of art, although when asked about the piece he states “the public still talk about ‘Shoot’. It’s like a very old girlfriend – you remember but you don’t think about  every day”.  ‘Making ‘Shoot’ turned out to be dangerously thrilling but also involved the Police – as a matter of procedure – but this did not put an end to Burden’s daredevil creative antics – for other installations he had himself nailed semi-naked to a Volkswagen and covered by a tarpaulin as he lay on the roadside tarmac by a Saab – again the Police attended the scene.

The youngest of three kids Burden enjoyed a cultured and peripatetic childhood mostly in Europe where his father was a big cheese at MIT; Burden himself later went on to be a professor at UCLA. Thoughtful and quietly spoken, he clearly possessed a rich inner life and was fascinated by the energy generated  around creating a piece, but this energy often caused great pain to himself and those involved and after his first marriage broke down – after an affair confessed publicly during one of his performances pieces –  Burden experienced a phase of down-spiralling depression that caused his work to become even more dangerous and obsessed by guns and firearms. In one piece, Burden was bolted to the floor near two electrically-wired buckets of water; his survival depended on the buckets not being kicked over by visitors.

Burden had his critics: Brian Sewell essentially called his work “rubbish” and Roger Ebert said: “If this is Art, it’s World War II”. But Burden was always quick to point out that he was driven to minimalism in order to expose essential meaning in his art. In his sculpture ‘Urban Light’, which is now the most photographed site in LA alongside the ‘Hollywood’ sign, street lamps have been honed to the highest degree of uniformity (by sandblasting) in order that they are absorbed and dominated by the essential idea of the piece. This is most effective when experienced at night.

His last years were spent seemingly at peace with himself creating immense artworks in his estate in Topanga Canyon, where his carefully curated team transform collected stray objects into works of art and his very satisfying sculpture cum model Metropolis II, an immense microcosm of the city of LA city, complete with toy cars. Burden ended his days a contemplative soul happy in the company of his dogs and his objets in the California countryside. MT




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