Through the Night Softly: Remembering Chris Burden

On May 10, 2015, the artist Chris Burden died.

For most, this death came as a surprise. His demise was credited to melanoma, a disease that Burden kept secret from the public.

Upon his death, Facebook broke out in a steady stream of memorial posts. Many focused on Burden’s installation Urban Light, on permanent display at the LACMA in Los Angeles, California. Urban Light features over 200 restored street lamps assembled in a close grid. It is a common location for tourists and visitors to snap photographs and selfies amongst the uncanny field of bright lamps, huddled together, extremely close but never touching. The installation has been consistently described as a symbol of LA.

Alongside figures such as John Baldessari, Mike Kelley, and Paul McCarthy, Burden was responsible for constructing the landscape of the LA art scene since the 1970s.

When I first learned of Burden I was immediately entranced.  I first came to the artist’s work through the infamous performance Shoot (1971), in which Burden was shot in the arm by a rifle-wielding friend named Bruce.

video documentation of Shoot

In Trans-Fixed (1974), Burden was crucified to the front of a VW Beetle. The vehicle was driven out from a closed garage, Burden affixed to it by nails through his hands. The engine was revved a few times, and the car slowly reversed back into the garage.



Some of his other logic-defying actions include: tossing himself onto the LA freeway in a burlap sack (Deadman, 1972), slithering through 50 feet of broken glass on a public street (Through the Night Softly, 1973), and spending almost a month in complete isolation in the corner of a gallery ceiling, reportedly not eating, drinking, or using the restroom (White Light/White Heat, 1974).

All I could think was: who was this guy? How was he able to pull of these ‘stunts’? The mythos was unquestionably appealing. I saw Burden as a deity, and had no problems further deifying him to anyone that would listen. His ability to push his body to extreme levels of art-making was incredibly shocking to my disposition, and radically challenged my burgeoning performance art practice. I staged long-form performance works throughout undergrad: splayed spread-eagle and masked on the central campus green; posing as a prisoner, unmoving and blinded, for hours at a time.

Burden also featured himself  and his performance work on television in Southern California. He bought commercial airtime and aired them as advertisements: perverse slots presenting his own work, completely out of context next to the late-night bits for fast food chains and local insurance agencies. In his own words, the TV Commercials (1973-1977) were “a way to break the omnipotent stranglehold of the airwaves that broadcast television held.”

TV Commercials (1973-1977)

This element of complete transparency, as explored in the TV Commercials, is an aspect of Burden’s work that persists: there is no hidden motive or allegory in his works. Through his performances, he simply presents

In Germany, I witnessed a group of young students being guided through a video art exhibition at the Hamburger Kunsthalle. When they reached Burden, many gasped or guffawed at the unrelenting absurdity of his works. Staring back at them was Burden himself, conspicuously not blinking, quietly and calmly in his uncanny way informing the viewer that what they were seeing in these videos were simply recordings, and they could never say they had seen the performance, the performance was one moment in time, a moment unreachable now. Another strong lesson learned from the bizarre little man whose body sustained so much damage for his practice.

Later, post-Big Wrench and digging huge troughs in the earth, Burden turned away from his more direct performance and conceptual works, instead working on pieces venturing into mechanics and engineering. He constructed his own vehicle form, known as the B-Car, His huge erector set renditions of the bustling LA cityscape, known as the Metropolis series, were received positively by critics. A long shot from Burden’s early work, such as when he pointed a gun towards a commercial airline in the sky and fired.

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