“Burden” – Rarely [MOVIE REVIEW]

A scene from BURDEN, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Chris Burden, one of the leading artists emerging in the 70s and part of the so-called “California School,” is given an excellent posthumous send-off in Richard Dewey and Timothy Marrinan’s documentary entitled “Burden.”

Burden rose to national fame, some would say infamy, while still a graduate student in the newly formed art division at the University of California Irvine campus (UCI). His graduate student piece in which he folded himself into a small art room locker and remained for five days propelled him into the minimalist performance art forefront. Burden not only thought outside the box, but created one just for himself. Radical, punishing and mesmerizing, Burden followed up this 1971 piece with increasingly dangerous feats of self-flagellation, usually featuring himself as his canvas. Personal in the extreme, some of his other important works were, “Shoot,” in which he has a marksman, a fellow student, shoot him in the arm (it was intended that the bullet only graze his arm but, well, sh*t happens and the through and through resulted in a hospital stay and police report); “Deadman,” in which he poses under a tarp at the traffic side of a parked car until he was arrested for causing a public nuisance; and “Trans-fixed” in which he was laid across the back of a Volkswagen and nailed, crucifix-style, to its roof.

Notoriety followed him as the “bad boy” of conceptual art, a designation that was both as desirable as it was deleterious. Burden makes it clear that he was ready to move on to other expressions by the late 70s, having said everything he needed to say with his performance pieces. What he had to say was open to the interpretation of the viewer, as all art must be. Some saw in it a protest against Viet Nam, others a protest against the inflated art market and the lack of artistic representation, and still others viewed his pieces as exploitative. It took many years and an assessment of Burden’s later work to put everything in context.

A scene from BURDEN, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

One significant transition piece was entitled “Big Wrench” and involved his repurposing of an 8- ton truck he called Big Job. Frankly narrating his plan for Big Job, he revealed that he wanted to use it as an instrument to punish a girlfriend who had fled in terror from him as his increasing drug use affected his stability. Luckily, he was never able to bring his plans to fruition, instead making a film revealing his original intent and highlighting his brush with insanity.

Burden continued to evolve and the film is at its best as it begins to explore the direction in which he travelled. Living reclusively with Nancy Rubin, an artist who would become his second wife, on a rather inaccessible large tract of land in Topanga Canyon, he began to explore larger sculptural pieces. Burden felt that the evolution from performance art to sculpture was organic in that he always viewed his early pieces as sculpture in which his body was the medium.

By the mid-80s, he began to explore structure and was given an especially large canvas at the new Temporary Contemporary Museum (now the Geffen) in which his piece “Exposing the Foundations of the Museum” literally exposed the dirt and structural beams of the museum’s foundation; a humorous play on the meanings of “foundation.” Not a sophisticated patron of contemporary art at the time (and I may still not be), I thought it hilarious that anyone could get away with considering it art to dig up the basement of a museum. Now I get it.

His “Big Wheel,” a massive and potentially lethal kinetic sculpture of a 3-ton antique flywheel powered by a motorcycle revealed Burden’s capacity for conceptualizing an action using precision mathematics to control its performance. His ability to combine engineering with art would only increase over the years.

The Topanga environment allowed time for him to reflect, creating new pieces that would eventually find their way into museums and galleries. The film emphasizes that these were pieces he explored at leisure and were not commissions. If there is one thing that his early work showed, it was his infinite patience. Within this environment he created the iconic “Urban Light” masterpiece for the west entrance of LACMA and kinetic sculpture “Metropolis II.”

The film does an excellent job of highlighting the evolutionary sculpture work of Burden from his days at UCI through his death last year from cancer. The filmmakers benefit from the onscreen interviews of Burden’s contemporaries and influences such as Alexis Smith, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Frank Gehry and Ed Moses. Jonathan Gold, one of Burden’s early assistants, contributes many insightful comments. Less helpful are the criticisms of priggish art critic Brian Sewell from the 70s. Certainly Sewell is used as comic relief as he is so clearly not a fan of Burden. More problematically, however, the filmmakers fail to show any viable, knowledgeable criticism of Burden’s work by someone who was writing about contemporary art at the time.

Marrinan and Dewey had extraordinary access to the rather reclusive Burden and his appearances on screen, from videos of his performance art in the 70s to the interviews they obtained when following him on his Topanga spread are interesting but only marginally revealing and insightful to the extent that Burden, in a carefully controlled setting, would allow. And therein lies the weakness of this excellent documentary. Less an exploration of Burden, it is a film that seems dictated by the artist, his final piece of performance art.

Chris Burden in BURDEN, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: © Joshua White.

Very little is known about his upbringing, other than that his parents, both professors, his father in engineering and his mother in biology, divorced and Burden spent his childhood in various boarding schools in Europe. More significantly, as this is, after all, about the evolution of an artist, nothing is mentioned about his college education, which was extremely important to his artistic progression. Burden attended Pomona College in the mid to late 60s and was already making a splash. His 6-foot yellow “Cube” was chosen to be part of the iconic “Pacific Standard Time” exhibition that was mounted at Pomona between 1969-1973. “Cube” made its appearance, alongside works by Judy Chicago and Robert Irwin, among others, in Part I. He was represented again in Part II with a performance piece entitled “Shot” where he shot packets of lit matches, like little rockets, at a nude woman on the floor who simultaneously watched a video of herself being subjected to the matches. Significantly this would have shown his beginning as a minimalist sculptor who then proceeded to performance “sculpture” using his body and then back to minimalist material sculpture.

Also given short shrift, mentioned only briefly, was Burden’s long stint at UCLA as a professor in the art department. They do mention that Burden and Rubin quit their tenured positions over a student gun incident but he was, by all accounts, a formidable force and excellent teacher for more than 26 years. All of the above information is personal as my husband was acquainted with Burden when they were classmates at Pomona and our son, many years later, had Burden as a professor while in the art school at UCLA.

Certainly there is a mountain of material and no one could possibly be expected to include everything. Still, at the end of this wonderful film, there is a feeling that, like his earlier performance art, Burden was controlling this documentary, using it as a selective canvas to show the parts of his life he was willing to reveal.

Opening Friday May 12 at the Nuart Theatre


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