Although Chris Burden’s “Extreme Measures” on view at the New Museum are monumental in terms of scale and gravity, not even a 53,000-pound installation can stifle the artist’s beginnings in performance art. Kept alive as much through word of mouth as through YouTube videos and witness testimonies, the performances—as repulsive as they are intriguing—have become hallmarks of the history of performance art.
After graduating from UC Irvine where he studied sculpture, Burden turned to performance due to a lack of funds and an insatiable desire to continue to create art. Burden’s first few works began on a rather tame note: in April 1971 he locked himself in an art locker and lived there for five days; later that year he trapped himself and fellow participants on ladders within a flooded gallery with an electric current in the water. Shocking works ensued: in Back to You he requested a random volunteer to puncture his torso with push pins; in Trans-fixed he essentially crucified himself on top of a Volkswagen; for TV Hi-Jack he pulled a knife on a TV anchor; in Velvet Water he repeatedly inhaled water and broadcast his self-torture to a remote audience; and in Through the Night Softly he crawled across a field of broken glass while wearing just a speedo. After 54 disquieting performances, a return to sculpture was imminent and possible.
For his most famous work, Shoot, Burden had a friend shoot him in the arm with a .22 long rifle. A short clip is preserved documenting the performance in which Burden’s reaction is incredibly calm and composed, nonchalantly grabbing his arm after the shot and walking off screen. Meant to comment on the hypocrisy of soldiers being shot in Vietnam and characters being shot on television programs. For another notable work, Bed Piece, Burden lived in a gallery for 22 days in 1972, well before Marina Abramovic’s stint at Sean Kelly Gallery and Tilda Swinton’s nap at MoMA. A provocateur on so many levels, Burden’s role as a pioneer is undeniable.