It's been six or seven years now since "performance artist" Chris Burden had himself shot in the arm ("Shoot"), since he had himself crucified on the back of a Volkswagen ("Trans-Fixed"), since he crawled on his belly like a reptile through a field of glass ("Through the Night Softly"). And like the singer whose old hits haunt him, his past "performances" have created expectations in his audiences.
"In a sense it bothers me," Burden said yesterday as he began installing "Hercules," the sculpture-experience he'll unveil tonight at the new Washington Project for the Arts Performance Space. "People always want you for what you did before because it's something safe, something they can latch on to. It's always harder to figure out what's going on now. But you can't keep doing the same work over and over, otherwise it's an act."
The old days were not always safe for Burden, who was getting physical long before Olivia Newton-John made it fashionable. At various times, Burden, now 35, has starved, electrically shocked and nearly drowned himself in pieces titled "Doomed," "Doorway to Heaven" and "Velvet Water," respectively. The shot heard 'round the art world left him grazed and dazed but hardly fazed. "It was just one of many things I did, but it did catch people's imaginations because the big question was why somebody would get shot on purpose." What better reason than Art.
It all seemed a violent catharsis from late '60s undergraduate days in California where his original training had been in sculpture. "I started making big sculptures outside; they started getting bigger and bigger and pretty soon I was living in them. I began to realize they were manipulating my body.
"So I started trying to make things that did that specifically; they got much smaller, pieces you interacted with physically, like exercise apparatus. But people kept seeing these objects as the art itself, so the next step was to eliminate the object so there wouldn't be any confusion; then they'd deal with just the manipulation of my body."
It was a period of frenzied campus activism and idealism, Burden explains, a time when young people were looking for new frontiers, felt challenged to make a new kind of art. "That's established now, but then art had become real commercialized, like a stock market. People were speculating. A bunch of us felt we didn't want to make products anymore, so we started making art that didn't have an object." That art became illusive, temporary, hit-and-run. Much of it was as ponderous and contrived as the theatrical "happenings" of the early '60s, but Burden managed to temper what he did with childhood innocence and puckish humor.
What others fantasized, Burden realized. Many of his performances seemed inspired by "what if" and were fueled by that innocent state of heart that makes all things possible to young children. Money, which he's never made very much of, became something to play with: counterfeiting Italian money ("Diecimila"), denying cliche's by grafting dollar bills onto palm trees ("In Venice Money Grows on Trees") and inspiring a 1977 performance called "Full Financial Disclosure" in which he displayed all his canceled checks in a Los Angeles gallery.
In "Coals to Newcastle," Burden built small model airplanes and flew a bunch of them across the Mexican border loaded with American marijuana. Aboard the Concorde, he flew a rubber-band model airplane to "demonstrate the laws of relativity. I flew it forward so it was in essence going faster than the Concorde." There were critics, as there so often are: "The stewardesses told me to sit down."
After the intense use of his body as a conduit, risk-taking tool and receptacle in the early '70s, Burden shifted his energies to building without tightening the loose reins on his imagination. His gem may be the one-passenger car that gets 100 miles to the gallon and goes 100 miles an hour. It looks more like a cross between a bicycle and an airplane, but when Burden built his B-Car without knowing anything about engineering, it was a napkin sketch brought to life, a daydream focused, a creative energy realized.
And it always seems to be the thought that counts as much as anything. A few years ago, he said, "I built a big cast-iron metal wheel, six feet in diameter, 6,000 pounds; built a big trestle for it so it was supported upright and a motorcycle backed into it so the rear tire rubbed onto it. Somebody would get onto the motorcycle and run it through the gears to the maximum and that energy would transfer to this huge cast-iron flywheel . . . and then they'd pull the motorcycle away and the wheel would just keep spinning. It was kind of like a Neanderthal atomic bomb. It would just sit there, wouldn't do anything but spin . . . but you realized the tremendous amount of force."
The creative energies have shifted again, to installations like the one at WPA, to gallery shows, graphic works, collages, environments, sculptures. What remains is a fascination with the world of the possible, a world that children understand and that adults tend to forget. Never Never Land.
Of course, sometimes, it helps to have that adult perspective. For recent performances commissioned in Paris and London, Burden was told he could keep the materials afterward. "So in England I had one diamond hung from a thread and lit with a tiny spotlight. The place was pitch dark, you had to feel your way in on a rope and out of the corner of your eye you'd see this twinkle and go up and see this one diamond hovering there. In Paris, I got to cast a gold Napoleon. So I went to Europe and came back with diamonds and gold in my pocket."
One doubts Peter Pan could have done any better.