Monday, 25 June 2012

On Militant Art: Part 3 - Chris Burden

Chris Burden

Chris Burden is an American artist working in installation and sculpture but he is best known for his performances. Burden is a useful example as, although he might be recognised as violent, he is not immediately thought of as “militant”.  By way of example he allows us to question what Militant Art is.  He is also a useful example of the aesthetic ancestry of Militant Art. 

1970s Performances

Shoot (1971)
Transfixed (1974)
747 (1973)
During the early to mid 1970s Chris Burden made a series of violent and controversial performances that helped to define the genre of performance art.  He is perhaps most famous for his 1971 performance “Shoot” in which an assistant, from 5 metres, shot him in the arm with a .22 rifle.  In “Transfixed” (1974) he was nailed to a Beetle car, as if crucified.  The car was driven out of the garage, revved for a couple of minutes and then taken back in.  For “Deadman” (1972) he lay, completely covered by a tarpaulin, on La Cienega Boulevard in LA with two fifteen minute flares placed nearby to warn cars (Burden was arrested and charged for this performance but acquitted when the jury failed to reach a verdict).  In 1973 the FBI questioned him after he fired several shots at a Boeing 747 as it took off from Los Angeles International Airport (he was out of range at the time so the FBI decided not to press charges). 

"747. January 5, 1973. Los Angeles, California. At about 8am at a beach near the Los Angeles International Airport, I fired several shots with a pistol at a Boeing 747." Chris Burden (BLOCNOTES editions, 1995).

Works such as these are violent, but what makes them militant? How is shooting at an aeroplane not an act of militancy?  Burden’s cold-blooded description (above) leads us to believe that it was a purely formalist action, not politically motivated. He later spoke of how the work was not about shooting a plane but about impotence, about the bullet never reaching its target, but this too could be read politically.  Do actions need to be politically motivated in order to be militant?  Or do Burden’s artworks, in fact, bear a message? 

White Light/White Heat (1975)
In “White Light/White Heat” (1975) Burden placed himself on a triangular platform, at about ten feet above the floor and two feet below the ceiling, in the corner of the Ronald Feldman Gallery…and there he remained for 22 days.  During the entire performance Burden did not eat, talk or come down.  He did not see anyone, and no one saw him.  The performance built on “Bed Piece”, in which Burden stayed in Bed for 22 days (but did eat and get up to go to the toilet – when the gallery was closed) and “Five Day Locker Piece” (1971) in which Burden locked himself in a college locker for 5 days.

Visitors to the “White Light/White Heat” exhibition spoke about feeling his presence, although none saw him and few heard him. As the viewer waits and listens their experience of the room and its sounds is heightened. Who would have known if he had died? 

This work can be seen as a critique on religion, with Burden playing the role of the invisible God “up above”.  One can also draw parallels with Saint Simeon Stylites, the Christian who lived on a pillar for 37 years.  Mortification of the flesh; fasting; voluntary seclusion; trial by ordeal, Burden presented the trappings of Sainthood.  Although the title of the exhibition came from a Velvet Underground song it also carried religious significance and his previous exhibition was entitled “The Church of Human Energy”. 

Burden has a longer track record of religious iconography in his work.  For “Jaizu” (1972) he was dressed in white and wore dark sunglasses while he sat, motionless, in a director’s chair for two days while viewers contemplated him while seated on cushions.  In 1974’s “Transfixed” he was literally crucified on a VW Beetle. 

By presenting a vacuum, in “White Light/White Heat” Burden was able to elicit thoughts from the audience.  Such thoughts may indeed have turned to religion, or they may have reflected on the IRA members who were on the seventh week of their hunger strike at the time, and clearly prepared to die for their cause.  If a political motive is needed to be called “militant” then perhaps Burden’s motive is to get people to think.  By evoking religious iconography such as exclusion and fasting perhaps Burden asks us if we too should reconsider our consumerist lifestyles.  If this is the case, then Burden does have a political message and the fact that he is prepared to break the law (Dead Man, 747, Cole to Newcastle); risk his personal safety (Shoot, Dead Man); and that he displays a militaristic, fanatical approach to endurance (White Light/White Heat, Locker Piece) means that at the very least his methods do indeed echo elements similar to those of a militant.  

Tracing Militant Art’s Aesthetic Ancestry

During his undergraduate course Burden made two giant, outdoor, tunnels – essentially like poly-tunnels.  His tutors, who were advocates of Minimalist Art, were an influence on him at the time.  Burden’s tunnels failed on two counts.  Firstly, they were vandalised; this led Burden to live in them during their exhibition, in order to protect them.  Secondly, wind cause one wall to cave in, which had the knock on effect of drawing in the opposite wall – by way of vacuum; you couldn’t walk down the tunnel as the walls collapsed in on you.  However, Burden noticed that if you ran down the tunnel you made an air pocket: the tunnel opened up in front of you and closed behind.  This led Burden to consider interactive art involving the “viewer” who would henceforth become the “participant”. 

Burden’s performances have a direct link to sculpture through minimalism and, I am claiming, Militant Art has an artistic heritage leading back to sculpture through performance art.  Militant Art groups such as Black Mask and King Mob have cited Dada, Futurism, Surrealism as influences so Militant Art should therefore be seen as expression drawing on these artistic histories.

Further Reading:

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