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Chris Burden: Why ‘extreme’ artist was shot, kicked and crucified

Artist Chris Burden in Washington, D.C., in 1982. (Ray Lustig/The Washington Post)

In 1971, a young man with close-cropped hair stood against the wall of an art gallery in Santa Ana, Calif. A friend stood across the room about 15 feet away with a .22 rifle and shot him.

This wasn’t a murder, murder/suicide or a game of William Tell. This was art. Chris Burden, the mastermind behind the event who died of cancer Sunday at 69, said as much.

“I will be shot with a rifle at 7:45 p.m.,” Burden wrote to the editors of the avant-garde publication Avalanche of his landmark performance piece, “Shoot.” “I hope to have some good photos.”

Indeed, the photos that emerged from the event were dramatic. Though Burden’s wound was minor, it was still a gunshot wound. In images, a baby-faced, stone-faced Burden looks unimpressed — unaware of the great impression his performance piece would have on the art world or, at least, playing at being unaware.

So: Was “Shoot” a joke? A deep message — perhaps about the ongoing war in Vietnam? A ploy for attention? Or just pure idiocy?

Maybe a little bit of all of the above.

“I wanted to be taken seriously as an artist,” Burden told the New Yorker about “Shoot” in 2007. Referencing Marcel Duchamp, the Dadaist who hung a urinal on a gallery wall and called it art, Burden said: “The models were Picasso and Duchamp. I was most interested in Duchamp.”

A little bit Duchamp — and a little bit Andy Kaufman meets “Jackass” — Burden accomplished his mission. After his death Sunday, one critic called him “one of the three most important artists to come out of L.A.”

“He would find the most extreme expression of a particular medium,” Mat Gleason, a Los Angeles based critic and curator, told The Washington Post in a phone interview. Though Gleason pointed out that Burden was in no way aligned with — and indeed, may have unintentionally anticipated — punk rock, he seemed a kindred spirit of that edgy, cartoonish musical movement.

“There was always a sense of danger,” Gleason said of Burden.

[Artist Chris Burden, once nailed to a car, later creator of iconic Los Angeles sculpture, dies at 69]

Though Burden moved toward grand architectural works by the end of his career, his early work — particularly “Shoot” — had violence at its center. This wasn’t just another still life. This was serious.

[Review: “Chris Burden: Extreme Measures"]

“All of a sudden U.S. troops were shooting at protesting students,” Burden said, as explained in a monumental 2005 tome about the artist’s work. “All of a sudden it [the violence] … took on another dimension.”

While some might be content to document, dramatize or avoid such violence in their art, Burden seemed to embrace it.

“Everybody’s trying to avoid being shot,” Burden said. But, he asked, what if “I flip it over and do it on purpose?”

The result was everything good artwork should be: controversial, easily mythologized and difficult to repeat. Indeed, in the post-Columbine age, when a student emulating Burden tried a similar stunt at the University of California at Los Angeles in 2004, it led to Burden’s resignation from the faculty. The artist who put violence into his pieces, it turned out, now objected to it.

“By not taking immediate action against the student who brought a gun to campus, and who intimidated his fellow students by playing Russian roulette in their presence, the university has created a hostile and violent work environment,” Burden wrote in 2005.

They were strange words to hear from a man who produced numerous other works that drew on hostility. Burden’s performances — sometimes videotaped and aired in Los Angeles as commercials after the artist began buying airtime — are bizarre, shocking, unforgettable and, often, intentionally or unintentionally hilarious.

In “Through the Night Softly,” Burden crawled over glass in his underwear. In “Velvet Water,” he breathed water. In “Trans-fixed,” he was nailed to a Volkswagen. In “Kunst Kick,” he was kicked down a flight of stairs. The artist’s terse, deadpan explanations of his pieces were perhaps most surreal.

“I repeatedly submerged my face in the sink and attempted to breathe water,” he wrote of “Velvet Water.” “After about five minutes, I collapsed choking. The cameras were turned off.”

And often, Burden’s work was self-reflexive. In “Show the Hole,” he showed the scar of where he had been shot in “Shoot.” In “I Became a Secret Hippy,” he — well, he became a secret hippie.

“The piece began when I took off my clothes, jeans and a t-shirt, and lay on the floor on my back,” he wrote of the piece. “A friend hammered a star-shaped stud into my sternum. I then sat in a chair and had all of my hair cut off. Finally, I dressed in some FBI clothes I had bought for the piece.”

In “Full Financial Disclosure,” he accounted for his earnings for 1976.

“In keeping with the bicentennial spirit, the post-Watergate mood, and the new atmosphere on Capitol Hill, I would like to be the first artist to make a full public financial disclosure,” Burden said in the TV spot. Anyone contemplating the artist’s life should note: that year, Burden netted just $1,054.

And in another “commercial” called “Chris Burden Promo” that is very difficult not to laugh at, Burden listed his own name among greats.

“Leonardo da Vinci,” Burden said in the video. “Michelangelo; Rembrandt; Vincent Van Gogh; Pablo Picasso; Chris Burden.”

“Those were on TV here in L.A.,” Gleason said. “People would talk about it: ‘Did you see these weird commercials?'”

The gag, however, had a point. Why shouldn’t these works be praised alongside “La Pieta” or “Sunflowers“?

“When you are pushing the limits as he did and you are so close to absurdity,” Gleason said, “the absurdity of life is the most serious art space.”

Indeed, in one piece that may have been his last to involve physical danger, he may have been prepared to die. In “Doomed,” Burden laid down in a gallery under a sheet of glass near a clock, resolved not to move until someone else acted on his behalf. He lay there for 45 hours, soiling himself, but no one questioned the display. Then, finally, a security guard gave him a glass of water, setting him free.

“It was awful,” Burden later said.

“‘Doomed’ unmasked the absurdity of the conventions by which, through assuming the role of viewers, we are both blocked and immunized from ethical responsibility,” the New Yorker explained.

The weird joke, perhaps, wasn’t a joke at all.