Christopher Lee Burden, better known as Chris Burden (Boston, April 11, 1946 – Topanga, May 10, 2015), was an American artist.
He is remembered, like Gina Pane and Marina Abramović, for his self-destructive and extreme performances that brought him controversial fame. Later, the artist focused on building engineered works of art.
Many creations have been collected in major museum collections including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Gallery, the Middelheim Museum, the Inhotim, the Museum of 21st Century Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
The son of engineer Robert Burden and biologist Rhoda Burden, he was born in Boston in 1946 and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, later moving to France and Italy. At the age of 12, he underwent emergency surgery, performed without anesthesia, on his left foot after being severely injured in a motorcycle collision on Elba Island; during the long convalescence that followed, he became interested in visual art, particularly photography. He later earned degrees in visual arts, physics and architecture from Pomona College and the University of California, Irvine, where he had artist Robert Irwin among his teachers.
He became interested in performance art in the early 1970s. During this period he found physical violence his way of expressing himself: his first performances put him in physical danger. Awareness of the body and its fragility are used by the artist to violently bring all emotions back to life.
His first performance Five Day Locker Piece was conceived for his dissertation at the University of California. During the performance he was locked for five days and nights in one of the University’s metal lockers with a drinking and urine receptacle. Five Day Locker Piece was photographed and sold as an art object.
On November 19, 1971, at 7:45 p.m., in a room at the F-Space gallery in Santa Ana, California, he conceived Shoot, one of his best-known performances. For it, he persuaded his friend Bruce Dunlamp to shoot at him with a .22-caliber rifle from five meters away. The action took place in front of an audience that had no opportunity to intervene and was caught on camera. As a result of the performance he sustained an injury to his left arm due to the inexperience of the shooter who nearly hit him in the heart.
The performance Being photographed looking out looking in was carried out at the F-Space gallery in Santa Ana, California, and was divided into three moments. First, a gallery attendant equipped with a Polaroid camera photographed visitors, one by one, as they entered. The second part of the performance consisted of a wooden platform hanging from the ceiling tied to a chain. Visitors could access the platform by climbing up a ladder. By reclining the platform, looking through a rubber lens they could see the sky. The third moment of the performance moved to a bathroom where the artist, behind a door, cannot see the viewer through a lens mounted on the door.
For his Deadman held Nov. 12 at 8 p.m. at Clenega Boulevard in Los Angeles, the artist lay on the ground covered by a waterproof tarp with two 15-minute flashlights each next to him to signal him. Shortly before the flashlights ran out, he was arrested by the police for procuring an alarm. After three days he was acquitted as the jury could not make a decision on the matter, and the judge dismissed the case.
In Icarus, held on April 13, 1973 at 6 p.m., he invited three people to his studio. He entered the room through a back door naked. Two assistants placed glass rods on his shoulders, doused them with gasoline and set them on fire. The artist jumped out of the flames, causing the glass to fall to the floor.
On September 12 on Main Street in Los Angeles he crawled 50 feet over shards of glass in his underwear with his hands tied behind his back The resulting work was named Through the Night Softly.
On April 23, 1974 at Speedway Avenue near Venice (Los Angeles) he held the famous Trans-Fixed. During the performance he literally had himself crucified on the back of a Volkswagen Beetle. The car was exposed to the public for about two minutes with the engine running. The vibrations caused severe pain in his hands.
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Instead, from 1975 is Doomed, staged at a room at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. In it he lay down under a pane of glass tilted forty-five degrees leaning against a wall on which is placed a working clock. He planned to remain in that position until someone interfered. Forty-five hours and ten minutes later, the museum employee, Dennis O’Shea, placed a pitcher of water beside him. At that moment, the artist came out and broke the clock face with a hammer, signaling the end of the performance.
Other performances from the 1970s include Match Piece (1972), B.C. Mexico (1973), Fire Roll (1973), TV Hijack (1972), and Honest Labor (1979).
Between 1973 and 1977 he bought advertising space from some local Los Angeles stations with the aim of disrupting the overwhelming power of television stations. Thus the Tv Commercials project was born: television commercials became spaces in which the artist appeared in person or aired some of his performances.
Alternatives:Engineering creationsThe engineering creationsEngineered creationsThe engineered creations
In the late 1970s, he devoted himself to creating sculptural installations composed of small pieces or working mechanisms.
One of his earliest mechanical creations is B-Car, a fully functioning four-wheeled vehicle that the artist himself described as “a vehicle capable of traveling 100 miles per hour and achieving 100 miles to the gallon.”
In this installation, the artist reproduced a facsimile of a 10,000 Lira Italian banknote printed on both sides of the sheet.
C.B.T.V. reconstruction of the first mechanical television.
Big Wheel, on the other hand, is a huge wheel that was first exhibited at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery. It was later exhibited in 2009 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
He created a giant poster-sized hand-colored lithograph. While reading, he accompanied each recited letter of the alphabet with an angry stomp. Twenty editions of the work have been performed in various museums, such as in the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
On a 100-square-meter plot of land and a sand base surrounded by a “jungle” made of houseplants he placed a model of two city-states, ready for war, with 5,000 model soldiers from the United States, Japan and Europe. This installation was the result of the passion the artist had for model ships and toy soldiers. He re-imagined a system of feudal states.
In The Speed of Light Machine’ the artist has re-enacted a scientific experiment that allows people to “see” the speed of light.
The installation All the Submarines of the United States of America consists of 625 small identical models of submarines made by hand from painted cardboard. These submarines represent the entire U.S. submarine fleet dating from the late 1800s (when submarines entered the Navy arsenal) to the late 1980s. He suspended the cardboard models on monofilaments from the ceiling, placing them at various heights so that they resembled a school of fish swimming through the gallery space.
For Samson, Burden created a 100-ton hydraulic jack connected to a turnstile so that whenever a guest entered the Newport Harbor Art Museum, the beams were driven into the museum’s supporting walls. The work was dismantled by the fire department on the grounds that it was a safety hazard; the intent of the design is noted by the artist himself: “if enough people entered the museum, it would collapse.”
Fist of Light was exhibited during the Whitney Biennial in New York and consisted of a closed metal box with hundreds of metal halide lamps burned inside. It required an industrial air conditioner to cool the room.
Hell Gate is an 8.5-meter scale model made of Erector Set, Meccano and wood pieces of the steel and concrete railroad bridge of the same name, which spans the Hell Gate segment of the East River between Queens and Wards Island in New York City.
In 1999, When Robots Rule was exhibited at the Tate Gallery in London. The work consisted of a “factory assembly line” that was to produce airplanes molded from tissue paper, plastic, and balsa wood. Each airplane with a propeller powered by a rubber band, upon its completion within 2 minutes, was launched to fly it around the gallery. Unfortunately, the machine never worked. According to World Sculpture News, “the work showed that robots do not, in fact, govern everything, and for now are still subject to individual and group failures.”
The new millennium
First presented at the Istanbul Biennial in 2001, Nomadic Folly (2001) consists of a large wooden bridge made of Turkish cypress wood and four huge umbrellas. Visitors could relax and linger in this tent-like structure filled with opulent handmade carpets, woven ropes, suspended glass and metal chandeliers, and wedding fabrics embroidered with glittering threads and traditional motifs.
In 2005 he created Ghost Ship, his unmanned yacht: a true autonomous sailor that docked in Newcastle upon Tyne, July 28, 2005, after a 5-day, 530-kilometer voyage that began in Fair Isle, near the Shetland Islands. The project was commissioned by Locus + at a cost of £150,000 and was funded by a significant grant from Arts Council England,built with the help of the Department of Marine Engineering at the University of Southampton. Apparently, the vessel was controlled via an onboard computer and GPS system; however, in an emergency, the vessel was kept under observation by a support vessel.
In 2008 he created Urban Light, a sculptural work composed of 202 antique street lamps once found around Los Angeles. He bought the lights from the contractor who installed Urban Light, Anna Justice. The work is on display outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the solar-powered lights illuminate at dusk.
In the summer of 2011, after four years of work, he finished his kinetic sculpture Metropolis II, which was installed at LACMA in the fall of 2011: “an intense kinetic sculpture, modeled on a frenetic modern city.” Instead, from 2013 is Porsche With Meteorite (2013), consisting of a steel balance beam that simultaneously supports a sports Porsche and a small meteorite. Also in 2013, the New Museum of Contemporary Art decided to appropriate Twin Quasi-Legal Skyscrapers (2013), two 11-meter-high towers created for his career retrospective.
Light of Reason was commissioned by Brandeis University in 2014 and is located outside the Rose Art Museum. It consists of three rows of 24 Victorian street lamps pointing toward the museum’s entrance. The sculpture serves as a gateway and space for outdoor events and has become a campus landmark.
The last work completed is a small working airship flying in perfect circles titled Ode to Santos Dumont (2015). The work, dedicated to the Brazilian aviation pioneer of the same name, was announced at a private Gagosian Gallery event shortly before the artist’s death and was later installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The artist passed away in Topanga, May 10, 2015, from melanoma. Before his death, he was designing a water mill to flank Frank Gehry’s aluminum tower at the LUMA Foundation.
He was married to multimedia artist Nancy Rubins. He lived and worked in Los Angeles, California. His studio was located at Topanga Canyon. From 1967 to 1976 he was married to Barbara Burden, who documented and participated in many of his early works.
In 1978 he became a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, a position from which he resigned in 2005. Although the reason for his choice is unclear, some say he was accused of violating the institution’s security regulations by attempting to use a gun during a demonstration art performance.