In 1971, in a bare gallery space in Santa Ana, Calif., artist Chris Burden filmed himself being shot with a rifle. The bullet went through his left arm, causing more damage than expected. The moment after he was shot, the boyish young man with short-cropped hair staggered forward a few steps as if stunned by pain or shock, and was photographed later with blood dripping from the wound. In the previous few years, tens of thousands of men his age died in Vietnam, and the performance, titled simply “Shoot,” obviously had something to do with the political climate since 1968.
It’s the sort of performance art that stays with you for a lifetime and there were other almost equally challenging, even maddening performances to come: The 1972 “Bed Piece,” in which he stayed in bed for 22 straight days; the 1973 “Fire Roll,” in which he used his body to extinguish a flaming pair of pants that he had soaked in lighter fluid; and the 1974 “Velvet Water,” in which the artist “breathed” water, choking almost to the point of drowning.
All of this is documented on film and video in a retrospective of Burden’s work at New York’s New Museum. They are difficult scenes to watch, both because what they depict is often excruciating and because the depiction is so matter of fact. Burden narrates the films, and is heard in a BBC interview long afterwards. He is soft-spoken and low-key, without a hint of incendiary relish or a provocateur’s bravado. His affect is classic Midwestern boy, though the artist was born in Boston and has spent his career working in California.
Eventually he moved away from performance art, and most of what is on display at the New Museum is large-scale installation work. But works like “Shoot” remain essential to understanding what came after because they dramatize issues of masculinity that remain central to Burden’s art. And strangely, the Burden retrospective, cleverly titled “Extreme Measures” — it can mean both a last or desperate response to a problem, or an “extreme” way of measuring something — leaves one with a residue of positive feeling about men, manliness and our rapidly evolving ideas about gender.
A simple description of Burden’s performance work of the 1970s makes it sound like part of continuum with the hyper-masculine art that had dominated much of the American scene since the 1940s. Having oneself shot is so quintessentially macho, almost a ploy for the masculine street cred enjoyed by the womanizing, hard-drinking, car-crashing abstract expressionists who dominated the art market long before Burden’s generation arrived on the scene. One might even spin a few elegant lines about “Shoot” as a condensation of gestural art, into a pure moment of violent expression.
But the overwhelming sense of Burden in these early works is more about martyrdom than masculine aggression. He endures a masculinity that he finds troubling, indeed, seems trapped by the very powers his work dramatizes. There’s no celebration of masculinity, just a matter-of-fact submission to self-victimization, as if he is claustrophobically contained in a system he despises. The sense of martyrdom became explicit in a 1974 piece, “Trans-Fixed,” in which he was nailed to a Volkswagen in a crucifixion pose.
In later work, made in the 1980s and on to the present day, there is a palpable sense of liberation from the entrapment of gender. Burden learns to play, directing ideas outward to objects and freeing his body from abuse. It is still very guy-centered art, but something fundamental has changed. The artist has escaped the dead end of flirting with self-destruction.
Which isn’t to say that his art is mindlessly playful or less serious than it was before. If in the 1970s, he invited people to push pins into his body, in 1984 he dropped huge steel beams from a crane into pit of wet cement. “Beam Drop” is to the excruciating push-pin piece, “Back to You,” made a decade earlier, like ancient theater is to primitive sacrifice. It enacts similar ideas, monumentally, in a way that liberates both artist and viewer from raw violence.
The 1981 “A Tale of Two Cities,” is a room-sized installation of some 5,000 toys, sand, plants and rocks, depicting a fantasy of cities at war. Model houses, airplanes and matchbox-sized cars are deployed in what is at once both a classic boy’s fantasy of war games, and a disturbingly over-obsessive indulgence in collecting and fantasy world-building. Another series of work, model bridges and other structures, made with small metal “girders” (based on Erector sets that used to be part of every boy’s toy arsenal) have led to room-sized reconstructions of engineering marvels like the Tyne Bridge in Northeast England.
Walk through this exhibition with a political sensibility calibrated to the current moment in American culture, and there’s something deliciously absent: For art as redolent of masculinity as a closet full of dirty gym socks, there’s not a trace of homophobia. Even as his works touch on issues of war, police violence, and proxies for masculine identity such as cars and guns (Burden reproduces historic mortars), there’s no compensating lapse into anti-gay tics and nastiness. Burden’s critique of masculinity and power is self-contained, and self-possessed, made without posturing or hierarchy, without need for passing on the violence in some other direction, to some other victim group.
There is an argument often heard in some culturally conservative circles that it is dangerous to dismantle traditional gender norms, and that men are in particular stymied — or emasculated — if they can’t behave as men are “naturally” inclined. Burden’s art shows us new horizons of gender and masculinity that annihilate that old canard. Many of his most dramatic pieces involve carefully suspended objects — a 1964 Ford crane truck with a one-ton cast-iron weight dangling precariously from its arm, a 1974 Porsche carefully suspended on a giant teeter-totter with a 365-pound meteorite. These pieces, and others, bring to mind a vocabulary borrowed from dance, not sport: Poise, grace, balance.
In light of his more recent work, the 1971 “Shoot” suddenly seems intimate. In his descriptions of the piece, Burden is laconic, but strangely specific about one detail of the shooting: “My friend was standing about 15 feet from me.” So the piece is also about proximity, and trust.
Those are two of the many things we might call “gender dividends,” the reward men, especially straight men, reap as masculine insecurity fades away and new, more fluid gender norms emerge. Intimate friendships such as men enjoyed until the middle of the 19th century, trust and affection are now less threatening. Burden loves bridges, and that in the end seems the best metaphor for his career, and the strange path that connects the performance work of the ’70s with the more finished, polished and nuanced installation pieces today. He played his way out of a corner, into something more productive, and while it may still smell of gasoline, sweat and beer, it never smells mean.
on view at the New Museum in New York through Jan. 12. For more information, visit www.newmuseum.org.