Perhaps most surprising about the new film Burden, directed by Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey and screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, is its depiction of artist Chris Burden’s dramatic transformation from a rabble-rousing student in the 1970s to a mild-mannered landowner in 2014. The film explores Burden’s oeuvre project by project, juxtaposing scenes and stills of Burden’s early actions — having himself shot in the arm (“Shoot,” 1971), cramming himself in a locker (“Five Day Locker Piece,” 1971), getting his hands nailed to a Volkswagen (“Trans-fixed,” 1974) — with the filmmakers’ recent interview footage of Burden walking around his expansive property in Topanga Canyon on the outskirts of Los Angeles County, the artist’s home until his death from malignant melanoma in 2015.
The impressive breadth of the artist’s work was evident, most recently, in the New Museum’s 2013 exhibition, Chris Burden: Extreme Measures, which included many of his large-scale sculptural works in addition to archival footage from his early performances. Yet, seeing Burden evolve on film is a revelation. We watch him mature, both as a creator and just as a guy — marrying and separating from his first wife, trying out different hairstyles. The footage of a young, mullet-sporting, jean-jacketed Burden, swiveling in a chair while discussing his antics with a talk show host, is difficult to reconcile with the fact that he became an established professor who retired from teaching at UCLA because of a student’s use of a gun during a classroom performance art piece.
The filmmakers don’t provide any easy answers as to what, exactly, catalyzed the transformation. They focus predominantly on the 1970s, which saw Burden’s wildest performance works (“Five Day Locker Piece” was his MFA thesis at the University of California, Irvine), and the period spanning 2000 to 2015, during which Burden created much large-scale sculpture, often celebrating (and celebrated by) the city of Los Angeles. The late ’80s and ’90s remain more mysterious.
The film also, notably, leaves out how Burden first got gallery representation and details about most of his museum shows over the years. Burden was the first artist represented by Larry Gagosian, an important detail given the gallerist’s predominance in today’s art world. The directors don’t seem much concerned with the institutions that came around to supporting him, though curator Paul Schimmel and Gagosian do speak briefly. Instead, Dewey and Marrinan celebrate the making of the art itself, project by project. The choice highlights the value of the works themselves while leaving out some basic biographical information—the film doesn’t really cover Burden’s marriage to his second wife, sculptor Nancy Rubins, or much about his teaching years.
A number of art world stars (and tennis great John McEnroe, who’s a Burden collector) also gave interviews for the film. It’s a pleasure to see Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha, Peter Schjeldahl, Peter Plagens, Christopher Knight, Vito Acconci, Frank Gehry, and Marina Abramović commemorate Burden’s accomplishments. “Chris Burden is up my alley,” says McEnroe. “A little crazy, but in a good way. Vaguely familiar, the way people talked about me.” Terry McDonell, a journalist who covered Burden’s work, expresses how simpleminded he finds the question of whether Burden ever crossed a line. “What line?” he asks. “He’s moving the line. That’s the point.”
In fact, the only voice of dissent is that of Brian Sewell, the late English art critic, who sits in an ornate chair undermining the value of conceptual art and calling its viewers “silly.” He proclaims the need for more people to dismiss the whole movement as “rubbish.” He’s the closest thing to a villain that an art documentary could have. Burden’s earnest voice, telling the audience how sculpture relates to performance, how “sculpture is action,” is much more convincing.
The film is, overall, a jubilant celebration of an artist who loudly pushed boundaries early in his career and more quietly in his later years, who left a lasting impression on the art world, especially in Los Angeles. In the film’s final scene, Burden’s “Ode to Santos Dumont” opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The piece consists of a blimp that circles slowly and majestically around the gallery. Text onscreen reveals that Burden had died just days before the opening. The white blimp becomes a funerary tribute to its creator, typifying the ambition and originality evident in all his work, from beginning to end.