Few artists occupy so legendary a position in the annals of recent art history as Chris Burden. Beginning with his 1971 MFA show, Five Day Locker Piece, in which he confined himself in a tiny student locker for five days solid, Burden spent his early career staging performances that explored a potentially fatal bringing together of art and life. He nailed himself to the roof of a Volkswagen Bug in Trans-fixed (1974), lay under a tarp on La Cienega Boulevard for Deadman (1972), and most infamous of all, had himself shot with a rifle for Shoot (1971). To generations of younger performance artists, these events established a ne plus ultra of art and risk. To their detractors, they seemed to sum up everything that was wrong with avant-garde art practice.
The Chris Burden of later years seems an utterly different artist, fascinated by engineering, scientific logic, and toys. He has made devices like Samson (1985), a 100-ton jack connected to a gear box and turnstile, which, if enough people passed through the turnstile, would theoretically expand enough to demolish the gallery in which it was displayed; flown a toy airplane inside a Concorde aircraft flying over the Atlantic, so that the toy achieved a speed just beyond Mach 2; and designed and launched Ghost Ship (2005), a crewless, self-navigating sea vessel.
Even beyond his art, Burden consistently challenges and perplexes spectators. In 2005, a student in one of his classes at UCLA, which was being led by Ron Athey in his absence, allegedly produced a revolver and staged a Russian roulette–style suicide attempt. Despite Burden’s infamy as the patron saint of risk, he insisted that the student be disciplined, and he and his wife, artist Nancy Rubins, resigned their teaching positions when the student was not.
Most recently, his sculpture What My Dad Gave Me — a 65-foot-high model of a skyscraper constructed from a million facsimile Erector Set parts — was assembled at New York’s Rockefeller Center, where it will remain until July 19. After the June 11 unveiling, Burden spoke to ARTINFO over a Starbucks sandwich, and together we tried to draw connections between the various extremes of his artistic practice.
Chris, if we were to trace an arc between that student in the locker in 1971 and the older artist who created this skyscraper, what would be the connection?
Testing the limits. And proving that things you didn’t think were possible can be.
You use toys a lot in your work these days. What is their significance?
I think toys are the tools by which children are inculcated into the adult word. They’re really important, but they’re given short shrift.
Does that explain the title of the skyscraper work, What My Dad Gave Me?
My father worked for the Rockefeller Foundation — he was in world health — and I used to go up to his office on the 49th floor or whatever it was. But really the piece is a metaphor for the fact that my father believed in education. He was interested in the real world. He spent a lot of hard-earned money sending me to good private schools and a private college. It’s a reference to the fact that he gave me the confidence to think that I could do something like this.
This work seems like a return to your roots in some way. You originally studied architecture, didn’t you?
Yes, I went to Pomona College, a small liberal arts college in Los Angeles. I was studying to be an architect, but they didn’t have an architectural program, so I took art courses and physics and advanced calculus. I was competing with the brainy physics and calculus kids, and they would get excited about spending 40 hours on one single calculus problem, and I didn’t find that interesting.
Art was more interesting?
I liked doing sculpture, which was just shifting over to minimalism at the time. I was one of the only kids who would go to the sculpture shop after class, and there was a eureka moment when I realized, “Oh my God! All these materials, and nobody else comes in. That stack of plywood, it’s really mine!”
So at some point I decided I would become a sculptor. I remember when I went to the chairman of my art department and told him. He said, “It’s bad enough being a painter. Being a sculptor is just suicide!”
How did you shift from sculpture to performance art?
Well, when I went to UC Irvine, I was trained as a minimalist, and I had some pretty good professors. We kept examining the essence of sculpture — how it was different from two-dimensional work. One of the things that I noticed is that it forces the viewer to move: In order to see a piece of sculpture, you have to walk around it. I thought, “Well, it’s really about body movement. It’s about physical activity.” I did a whole series of works in graduate school where I made apparatuses that you had to use — using them was the art. The apparatus was not the art; it was a tool to make you do the art.
But they were finely crafted out of stainless steel and aluminum, so people would see these apparatuses and think that they were the art. When I had to do my MFA show in the student art gallery, I was going to build a box and get into it, but then I saw these lockers off to the side and thought, “That’s the solution! Use a pre-existing box that is clearly not the art.” That was another kind of eureka moment: “I can just do something and it can be art. I don’t have to make something.”
You said a few moments ago that your father was interested in “the real world.” It strikes me that your performances were about testing yourself against reality.
Yes, and in that sense they weren’t theatrical. They weren’t about multiple performances. There’s only a first time. You’re only a virgin once!
Marina Abramovic did a show at the Guggenheim where she restaged performances, and she asked me for permission to restage the piece on the Volkswagen. I told her, “If you’re asking me, I’m going to say ‘no,’ but actually you don’t need my permission. You can go and do it.” And that became a big issue for her, the fact that I had denied her permission.
I think that performance is still very problematic for institutions, because how do you collect it? You can collect the documentation or the residues, but you can’t own a time-based event.
How do you feel about clips of your work showing up on YouTube?
Weird. I don’t know what to do about it. There was a fake MySpace page, too: A guy was impersonating me, and we actually shut him down. At first it seems flattering, but then you think, “What if he starts saying all kinds of weird things about me, and somebody reads them and thinks they’re true?”
This takes us on to the whole question of the morality of art, which I know is very important to you. I’m thinking of the position you took over that student with the gun.
Yes, that was shocking, actually. Not what he did — students do all kinds of crazy things, that’s in the nature of being young. It was mostly the reaction of my colleagues at the university as a whole. They blamed me for it, despite the fact that I was in Amsterdam at the time.
What did you think of the student’s behavior?
There are very clear rules about decorum and etiquette in the university setting: You’re not allowed to swear, there are all kinds of things you can’t say. In an undergraduate class I always used to tell students, “You can’t do a performance where you lay on the railroad tracks, because you have a responsibility beyond yourself, because you’re part of the school. I just can’t allow you to do something that will cause the art department to ban this kind of teaching.”
At the graduate level, I only met this man a couple of times, and I thought he was manipulative. He said, “I want to do something edgy, edgy, edgy.” I think there’s this need for fame that’s overwhelming. But you can’t bring guns on campus, you can’t threaten suicide, you can’t threaten others. In my mind, it was a no-brainer. I’m not saying, “Arrest him!” He just can’t be part of our club. He broke the rules.
A lot of people found your position difficult to understand because you’d made Shoot all those years ago.
I was not a student when I did that performance. In fact there was a Duchamp festival at the university, and I actually considered doing the Shoot performance as part of it. But even in 1971 I realized, if you’re on campus, then breaking the rules will be the issue, and that’s not what it’s about. I have no problem with what he did, it’s just that he did it in the context of the university. If he wants to go and walk around downtown and do Russian roulette art, then either he blows his brains out or his friends call the police.
And that was the end of teaching for you?
Absolutely. My wife and I resigned on the spot when they refused to discipline the student. I can’t be associated with an institution that is so misguided.
When you were a student and you made Five Day Locker Piece, you famously commented that you wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. What’s your ambition now?
To live a long time so that I can fulfill my ideas. I have more ideas than I have life left.