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The boy, the bed and the gun

by Dr Christopher Chapman, 9 March 2016

Christopher Chapman contemplates the provocative performance art of Chris Burden. 

Bed piece, 1972 by Chris Burden
Bed piece, 1972 by Chris Burden

A young man stripped to his underwear, climbed into bed, and stayed there for twenty-two days. In a large white room with a bare floor, the single bed is pushed against the far wall. Chris Burden, aged twenty-five, wears a white singlet and pulls the white bed-covers up to his armpits. He hasn’t given any instructions to Josh, who soon devises a pattern of providing food and water and taking care of Chris' toilet needs. The temperature is fairly constant and mild, but Chris sometimes shivers or sweats. 

This was a performance art piece early in the career of an artist whose decades of endeavour expanded across large-scale installation artworks and feats of engineering. Extreme Measures, an expansive exhibition of Burden’s artistic explorations, opened at New York's New Museum in October 2013, less than two years before his death from melanoma in 2015.

Josh Young ran the Market Street Program at Venice Beach, California, an exhibition space that supported local artists. For his exhibition in February 1972, Chris asked Josh for a single bed to be placed in the gallery. That was all. The first two days were a struggle; Chris was anxious. A year earlier he had borne a performance that lasted five days. Now, laid out here in this bed, the idea of time had changed. It stretched. The still air was dented by the clap of footsteps, but gallery visitors kept their distance. 

Video still from Documentation of Selected Works, 1971-74 by Chris Burden

Chris was among a group of female and male students whose performance artworks were a ground-breaking force. Photographic documentation of his performances shows how boyish he appeared, like a teenager with puppy fat. 'He looks like a kid who could be kicking a ball in an empty lot' was Marion McEvoy’s description in 1975, and a commensurate air of innocence pervaded his performance artwork for the graduating students' group exhibition at University of California, Irvine in May 1971. For two weeks during the University Art Gallery's open hours, he rode a ten-speed bicycle in constant loops through the front door, out the back, around and back through the gallery again. This playful performance followed one just a week earlier where he was locked in a two-by-two-by-three-foot locker for five days.

'In some of the pieces I’m setting up situations to test my own illusions or fantasies about what happens', Chris told Avalanche magazine interviewer, Willoughby Sharp, in 1973. The five days he spent inside the locker for his Masters of Fine Art graduating presentation didn’t evoke the sense of isolation he had anticipated. Instead, Chris found himself engaged in conversations through the ventilation grilles in the closed locker door. Art professors even held classes in front of the locker, with Chris participating in the discussions. Softly spoken, Chris would grow up to be an 'amicable man', as Peter Schjeldahl put it in a 2007 New Yorker profile, a 'solidly fleshy' sixty-year-old 'given to arduous enthusiasms'.

At Market Street, in the bed, days passed. A new feeling settled upon him. Twitches in his fingers and toes softened into warm pulses. Circulatory and nervous systems hummed, muscle tissue and fat stores oscillated heaviness into weightlessness. Breath found a deep rhythm. His mind was alert, precisely tuned to the wet, warm signals washing through his body. I could stay like this, Chris thought. As the performance piece progressed, his friends became concerned, worried that he had 'flipped out'. Towards the end, Chris felt a 'sort of nostalgia' for the experience, 'a deep regret for having to return to normal', but he knew it was inevitable. After the scheduled twenty-two day exhibition, he got up and it was over.

Three years later, in 1975, Chris asked for a large corner shelf to be built 'ten feet above the floor and two feet below the ceiling' for his solo exhibition at Ronald and Frayda Feldman’s gallery on New York’s Upper East Side. This time he spent twenty-two days lying flat on the shelf, out of the view of gallery visitors, subsisting on fruit juice. His thoughts and emotions echoed the experience of Bed piece. 'What's weird,' Chris said, when interviewed by David Robbins in 1980, 'is that you start to like it up there. You feel power, because nobody knows what's going on. I don’t just sit up there and meditate. I go to work, psychologically.' Chris' 'psychological work' was noteworthy. Helene Winer, who ran the gallery at Pomona College in the early seventies, recalled it as 'hyper-focused detachment'. And it was this intense detachment that Chris had needed to call upon four years earlier, for the performance piece that is regarded by many as his defining moment.

Shoot, 1971 by Chris Burden

The student gallery, F Space, in Santa Ana, was twenty minutes from the UCLA campus. In a new light-industrial estate, it was named for the generic prefab building’s alphabet label 'F'. On November 19, 1971, in this stark room, Chris Burden was shot in the name of art. His matter-of-fact description of the performance piece Shoot reads: 'At 7.45pm I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me.' The bullet was meant to graze his arm, but it left an entry and exit wound. A photograph taken just after the event shows Chris seated on a chair while the wound is dressed. Wearing a grey t-shirt and blue corduroy jeans, his youthful face glows with astonishment, utterly calm.

For Chris, art provided 'a free spot in society' and through his performance pieces he proposed he was 'providing people with the opportunity to let something more in, to stimulate their imaginations'. His performance pieces are commonly understood within the broader context of the history of performance art and its social stance, antithetical to institutions and authority. Performance artists sometimes disavowed the commodification of painting and sculpture by creating time-based pieces and using their own bodies as the medium of art. In California, the swell of the anti-establishment counter-culture provided a backdrop of social change against which his work could fairly be seen as pushing social boundaries. Many of his performance pieces were also careful explorations of the connections between individuals that brought the expression of trust into sharp relief. 

The experiential nature of Chris' performances is stark, and his pithy motivation for Shoot is often quoted. 'How can you know what it feels like to be shot if you don’t get shot?' The continuation of his line of enquiry revealed a sense of earnest wonder. 'It seems interesting enough to be worth doing it.'

'Getting shot is for real,' he said in the Avalanche interview; 'lying in bed for twenty-two days... there's no element of pretence or make-believe in it'. He was aiming for the communication of an experience where a sense of self is deeply present. 'Burden’s control over his mind and body is a rigidly ascetic one,' observed Jan Butterfield in 1975. 'It is not his body per se which comprises Burden’s pieces - but his mind.'

I have never met Chris Burden, but twenty years ago I wrote to him seeking the loan of photographic prints documenting Shoot, for an art magazine article. The manila envelope containing the 8 x 10s was addressed to me in his casual cursive handwriting. For years I have felt an affinity with him in these early performance pieces. It's an intuition that isn't yet fully known to me. 

An exhibition to open in mid-2016 at the National Portrait Gallery, Tough and Tender, touches lightly on themes of bodily sensation, yearning for connection, and vulnerability in manhood. Chris Burden's performance work aligns beautifully with these themes.