The film begins with an extreme close-up shot of a young man’s face, his forehead and chin partially cropped out of the frame, his head centered on a nondescript, mottled black background. He has light skin, dark hair, thick eyebrows, and a thick mustache neatly shaved down the center. The man’s face is round and full and sits above a wide, square neck. He gazes directly but softly into the camera, blinking several times before he begins speaking: “I’d like to introduce myself,” he intones. “My name is Chris Burden, and today, on this tape I’m gonna show you excerpts, or visual records, from eleven different pieces I’ve done, starting in 1971 into 1974.”
Burden’s video, “Documentation of Selected Works, 1971-1974,” is on view at the artist’s major retrospective exhibit at the New Museum in New York, “Chris Burden: Extreme Measures” (from Oct. 02, 2013 through Jan. 12, 2014). The film, along with a two-volume binder compilation of still images accompanied by Burden’s textual descriptions of works from 1971-1973 and 1974-1976, serves as a gateway to the exhibit.
The awkwardness of the extreme close-up on Burden’s face signals, in part, that the “documentary” framing of the video is itself performative. In the nearby binders, Burden describes his use of a similar filmic composition in his 1975 television ad “Poem for L.A.” (though the frame isn’t quite as tight there). The soft, thoughtfully hesitant voice with which Burden addresses his viewer recalls another performance piece from 1974, entitled “The Confession,” wherein Burden recounted intimate personal information to an audience in another room via television monitor.
In “Documentation of Selected Works, 1971-1974,” Burden frequently pauses mid-speech, seeming to choose his words carefully. He looks off-frame and his head gently sways back and forth during the four-and-a-half minute introduction to eleven short films of prior performances. Burden’s voice, demeanor, and language are all perfectly mild: “I’d like to introduce myself,” “As you watch this tape, I want you to remember,” “I guess at this time I feel,” winding up with: “I want you to try to—although I know a lot of you will forget it—to remain aware that you’re not seeing the actual experience. And I guess with that we can go right into the first piece which I’ve recorded on film, which is ‘220’.”
It seems important to spend time analyzing and thinking about this short segment of film—and to consider it, even, as a frame around Burden’s oeuvre—because it usefully shifts the emphasis away from the obvious extremity and violence of Burden’s work to the other, more subtle, complicating term proposed by the New Museum exhibit, which is ‘measure’, as in: deliberation, restraint, moderation. Thomas Micchelli similarly identifies this tension, expressed through the pun on ‘measure’ in the exhibition’s title, “Extreme Measures,” when he writes:
The retrospective makes the case that Burden’s work is all about power: who is wielding it, who is subject to it, and how the tide can swiftly turn… But some of the more intriguing pieces, including “The Big Wheel” and “Porsche with Meteorite” (2013), in which a 365-pound meteorite holds in balance a 2,190-pound restored 1974 Porsche 914, demonstrate that a small amount of pressure, correctly applied, can withstand or upset otherwise overpowering forces (a circumstance that lends a double meaning to the exhibition’s subtitle, Extreme Measures).
I largely agree with Micchelli: it’s the measure that is intriguing, and it’s the measure which itself holds the extremity in a curious balance.
Because Burden’s work, especially the performance work of the 1970s, is so often disturbingly violent, viewers and reviewers tend to hyper-focus on themes of power and violence, and on the extremity (often, sadomasochistic extremity) of the work. But underlying and supporting the violence is an alloy of “measure,” which Burden cultivates through his own exploratory, contemplative attitude vis-à-vis the performances. I recall that the wall text for “Documentation of Selected Works, 1971-1974” likened Burden’s performative attitude to that of an empirical scientist. The performances were not to be read, then, as spectacles, but as experiments in earnest. Burden’s attitude within the performances, as in his explanatory introduction in the video, is marked by a calm reserve. His presentation of the work is neutral; it does not prepare the viewer for what is to follow, because Burden refuses to suggest or proscribe any particular (i.e., the appropriate) attitude with which we are to meet the work.
When Burden introduces “Bed Piece” (1972), he explains that he has included it, in part, “to offset the more dramatic pieces in this tape.” It’s an odd prefatory remark, since “Bed Piece”—a 22-day stint in bed, without any advance planning for either sustenance or defecation, and without any communication throughout the duration of the piece—seems hardly less “dramatic” than, say, being shot in the arm. (Given the choice, I think many would opt for the shooting.) I don’t want to call it false modesty, but the statement does misrepresent the intensity of “Bed Piece,” about which Burden adds: “I don’t know whether the energies of this piece can be successfully transmitted on tape, but to me this piece remains in my mind as one of the strangest and most interesting piece[s] that I’ve ever done.”
It’s worth quoting Burden at length here, because I think his description of “Bed Piece” gives a sense of how the intensity of Burden’s early performances can be rendered quite subtle. As he relates in “Documentation”:
Josh Young asked me to do a piece for the Market Street Program, from February 18th to March 10th. I told him I would need a single bed in the gallery. At noon on February 18th, I took off my clothes and got into bed. I hadn’t given any other instructions and I didn’t speak to anyone during the piece… I remained in bed for 22 days.
At first, it was very hard. The first two days were very boring and very painful, and I realized I wasn’t anywhere near the end, and I didn’t see how, how I could go on. But by the end or the middle of the second week I had begun to establish a routine, and I began to sort of enjoy it there, and my days were very full and very rich and I had a very peaceful feeling.
And as the piece neared ending, neared closing, I started feeling regret about leaving, I started feeling like I wanted to stay, and I actually considered staying. But I knew that if I stayed, that I would be forced to leave anyway and that people would’ve, would consider me crazy. I mean I knew that they were gonna end it for me. But the fact that I was tempted, and that, that I was very seduced into it, to me that is the strangest part about this piece.
Some of the energy, I think, of what was going on in my head was sort of conveyed to the other people. I had a strange power around me, sort of like a bubble or a repulsive magnet. Most people wouldn’t come close to me. In fact, most people seemed frightened.
What seems interesting in this description is a two-fold thing: First, it’s Burden’s description of himself as a “repulsive magnet.” That people encountered the work and responded with a certain kind of horror—an impulse to repulse, or reject, or avoid—a sentiment like loathing or disgust, or just “the creeps.” This seems an accurate description of one of the initial, most basic, and (dare I say?) basically human responses one might have to much of Burden’s early performance work. In my own experience, for one, seeing an image and reading the description of a performance like “Trans-fixed” (1974), wherein Burden crucified himself on the back of a Volkswagen beetle, a part of me can’t help but recoil, and cringe. More than cringing, this part of me wants to reject the work, to deny its artistic merits, to chalk it up to sadomasochistic sensationalism, to assign it a label—like “crazy,” or “sick,” or “fucked up”—and to move on. So, I can empathize with those who were frightened by Burden’s “Bed Piece” and who treated him with avoidance. Burden, too, appears to empathize with them. And this is the second thing about “Bed Piece” that interests me: that the viewer’s initial reaction of repulsion is not radically different than the performer’s initial affective response to the piece. To quote Burden once again: “At first, it was very hard. The first two days were very boring and very painful, and I realized I wasn’t anywhere near the end, and I didn’t see how, how I could go on.” Burden’s own initial reaction to the piece, then, is similarly marked by antipathy.
I get the sense that Burden initiates a piece without a prefigured idea of how he will feel about the work as he’s performing it. He sets out with an exploratory, experimental attitude, one that is open to unanticipated events, unexpected feelings, sensations, and thoughts. He initiates a scenario; the scene that unfolds, however, is not scripted. Furthermore, I imagine that “the point” of this work is to create the condition of possibility for the viewer to encounter it with a similar kind of dispassionate curiosity, to be open to the exploration of states of discomfort, pain, psychological violence, physical threat, constraint, hunger, fatigue, loneliness, boredom, alienation, etc. Burden’s work deconditions and dissociates a given experience from a stock response. This, to me, is the import and the importance of the work. More than an exploration of forms of personal and state power and violence, Burden’s work investigates a phenomenology of perception, meaning the ever-shifting experiences of an embodied subject. This, I think, is what the best of his work does. Whether the same can be said of Burden’s later sculptural-installation work is a question deserving of another essay entirely. What I can say, though, is that this “phenomenological” quality, as I’m calling it, of the earlier performance works lends its texture to the meditations on power and violence that run throughout the works in the exhibit taken as a whole. This “texture,” I’m arguing, is a frisson produced by the friction between the “extreme” and the “measured” in Burden’s work.