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Art's Burden

October 5, 2017

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A twelve-year-old boy was seriously injured from a motor scooter accident and the doctor had to administer immediate surgery; the surgery was so urgent that anesthetic was not given. What kind of impact do you think this would have on a kid? For Chris Burden, he called it “formative”, and it certainly shows in his artwork.


Chris Burden found a love for photography and visual arts in the recovery room after his misfortune. He studied visual arts at Pomona College and later got his MFA at UC Irvine. In the 70's, he made a name for himself in the art scene by creating pieces that revolved around his endangerment. He was playing with his own mortality and pushing his body for little acknowledgement. One of his most well known performances is the piece Shoot, in which he gets shot in his arm with a .22 rifle form 15 feet away. This was just one hazard among many for Burden. Others include getting nailed down to a car, getting kicked down a flight of stairs, or crawling across broken glass. These pieces did not get police attention, however one piece may have pushed too far. 


One night in 1972 on the busy streets of Los Angeles, Burden created his Deadman performance. The performance included Burden lying in the street next to a parked car and dangerously close to cars passing by. On top of that, Burden concealed himself with a tarp, the only thing that indicated that he was there were two emergency flares. Eventually the police would stop the performance and Burden was arrested. 


The arrest gave Burden some infamy. While in a 2007 issue of The New Yorker he stated that he staged the performances like Shoot so that he could be taken seriously, there is no doubt that his early injury had a part to play in his artistic direction. 


Chris Burden’s dangerous art is a great example to examine the extremes in art and endangerment. When he was only harming himself there was no attention from the police. However, once his danger became a threat to others, the police jumped in. This begs the question, how much can you harm yourself before it will be stopped. In Burden’s case it seems that anything short of suicide will be legal. His performances also raise a moral question for the spectators. In the piece Doomed, Burden was lying on the floor for 45 hours before an employee placed a glass of water on the ground for him to drink. This ended the performance and saved Burden from lying on the ground for any longer without food or water. In some cases, it is a razor sharp line between interfering with a work of art and saving someone from fatal danger. Burden paints the line connecting art and mortality, leaving us to watch in amusement or horror.

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