Performance Art - relic of the 1970s, when culture still optimistic about
chances for better life and better art. Conceptual art, Performance art,
Video, Minimalism, rise of Feminist and Ethnic consciousness, new materials,
new approaches, (new money). These currents eddying and swirling around art
schools, magazines and galleries everywhere. Reaction to too much money in
the art world (if only they knew what was in store). People dematerializing
the art object, according to a lemming-like urge (as commanded by Modernist
guru Clement Greenberg from his bunker in Southampton). "Remove the spacial
dimensions one by one and see what happens" was the perceived invocation.
"Take out all extraneous decoration: humor, gentleness, love, sex, emotion,
wonder," art(ists) seemed to be chanting, in response to the (d)evolutionary
forces at work in the West. Add to this aesthetic Puritanism a misguided,
fanatical dialecticalism, misconstrued into an almost political dogma, and
we have artworks which say, "I refer only to myself, my physical support and
the Boncour Paint Company, from which I came." An inspired epoch of
self-critical solipsism, or rather, an ever-inward-turning spiral.

Where was the spiral going, for what purpose? "Tell us, please Mr.
Greenberg, for we are dizzy with all this turning and turning, and never
reaching the end! And it's all so boring! Say why it is we are doing
this." And he said, "Because I said so." And we said, "I know, and will
obey, but, -- whimper -- may we ask why?" "No! (and ignore that man behind
the curtain...!)"

And in this clarion time, came forward a young man, not tall, chipmunkish
in fact, who was to turn the heads of all the inward-spiraling Modernists
away from their grim furrows. They wanted a dematerialized art, an art
leaving no unsightly corpse? This young man would jump the track, as it
were, and speed into the very center of the spiral, imploding it like a
black hole, showering those nearest it with powerful X-rays. A galaxy was
born, Modernism could see its logical end, and we have had to look in other
directions ever since, thank the lucky stars.

That young, taciturn man, who abolished the object, and instead became not
an object, but a process, was Chris Burden, born in Boston, late of Pomona
College, MFA from UC Irvine. It was he who would lead us to the promised
land, after which history would no longer exist, because we would no longer
need light by which to see, we would be light. Bing! Performance Art. And
we could almost rightly ask, "Are we aesthetic yet?"

That Chris Burden short-circuited American Modernist Formalism, as defined
by Clement Greenberg (and furiously elaborated by a small army of New York
City critics, curators and artists), can be debated. Certainly, elements of
the Fluxus movement, of Minimal and Conceptual art could be considered
expressions of the far reaches of Modernist Formalism, that very American
conception of art wherein the "goal" of art was to purify itself of all
extraneous, decorative emotion, incident, and narrative, and ultimately
express only its own physicality. This is like a scientist studying the
tears in the eyes of a grieving widow. We may learn much about the tears'
contents, but we ignore much else besides. And artists are not scientists.

I don't hold to the belief in Burden's dematerialization of the art object
as either a settled issue or even one of overweening importance. But for
those making art in the 1970s, his work appeared to be a brick wall up
against which there was no further progress to be made in reducing art, if
progress in reducing can be called progress. His work was concise,
interesting, intelligent and had an emotional edge to it which most American
art does not. He was an artist whose work needed to be reckoned with, and
he was the best American artist of the 1970s.

Burden's MFA "thesis" for 1971 at UC Irvine was the "5 Day Locker Piece."
He fasted for three days first, to prepare, and then had himself locked
inside a small locker, the kind in which students there used to put their
books and packs when going to class. He stayed there for 5 full days, with
only a 5 gallon bottle of water to drink and an empty 5 gallon bottle to
urinate in. The faculty were not amused, they were perplexed, but since he
didn't ask them, they couldn't stop him (the essence of free speech in this
country), and gave him his degree anyway.

After that, he performed a series of media-catching Performances such as
"Shoot" in which a friend tried just to nick his arm with a .22 calibre long
rifle bullet from 15 feet away (and put a hole through his arm). He had
himself bolted to the floor with buckets of water and live electrical cords
near enough that had anyone kicked over one of the buckets, Burden might
have been electrocuted. He remained in bed, in a gallery, for three weeks,
had himself crucified to the back of a Volkswagen and crawled through broken
glass. He sat in a room with his sunglasses painted opaque thus not being
able to see anyone else, the frustration of his lack of response causing him
to be assaulted by one viewer.

These and other Performance pieces earned Burden a lot of press, negative
and positive, with critics and viewers alike wondering why he was doing what
he was doing, was it good or bad, and was it even art. After all, many
people, even in the artworld, had never heard of Performance as an
independent medium in the visual arts. They thought Performance Art meant
"the performing arts" which it does not (do modern dancers and monologuists
in the audience hear this?). One L.A. talk show interviewer even asked
Burden whether he would submit to some physical degradation or other on the
air. Burden merely winced, not in the contemplation of any physical pain,
but in the face of this philistinism.

How Burden's work ties in with Greenbergian formal purity is that it is an
ultimately unsalable art. Nothing is left of the artwork except "relics"
(e.g., a rifle, a pair of sunglasses, a bed, etc. which are definitely not
the work of art), and the ghosts of his performances: photographs, films,
videotapes, written and verbal descriptions. In fact, the first I ever
heard of Chris Burden was a report by someone I knew that some artist had
given artgoers an opportunity to electrocute him. I thought this was a
bizarre thing to do. It was only later that I realized that in fact I was
actually experiencing his performance when I heard tell of it. This word of
mouth description was actually a form of Performance Art, as Burden
conceived it. It was not necessarily inferior to having been there. In
fact there was no visual component in the description itself, all the vision
took place in my imagination, and was a development of the Conceptual Art
movement. Was this visual art? One can hardly imagine something like this
selling at Christie's for $60 million. It was free. It smacked of
anti-materialism and anti-capitalism. This couldn't go on.

Most people dismissed this as the posturing of an artist squirming on the
hook of his own White Male Middle-Class Guilt. He was considered a
masochist, a fraud, a provocateur. You couldn't buy his art, so few
galleries were interested, and it was rather "on the edge" since it often
brought up issues of violence, all of which was visited on the artist
himself by spectators or friends. Burden himself refused to overly promote
his art. This leads up to how his work relates to Modernism (as opposed to
Clement Greenberg's Formalism). Namely, the fact that the artist/performer
actually does very little. Rather, it is the spectator who is forced to
"act" either by performing some action or by having to confront an
emotionally charged situation, such as watching Burden be shot. In this
way, the artist becomes the viewer, and the viewer becomes the active
ingredient in the work, a necessary component of the process in all
Modernist art, from Manet onward. The roles in the art process are thereby

This creates a visual paradox, a reversal in the mind, of meaning, either of
expected meaning or of perceived meaning, or both. One goes to an art
gallery, or event to be a voyeur. One does not go to see visual art
expecting to be asked to stick pins in someone or to confront a person in an
unexplained, bizarre, undelineated or mildly dangerous situation. Thus one
perceives their expectation of reality, yet finds the reality before them to
be the opposite of that expectation. If the paradox is a true visual
paradox (and not merely a literary one, such as: male vs. female, or light
vs. dark, or happy vs. sad) then one perceives it physiologically as much as
rationally. It is felt almost before it is understood.

This is how Burden's work relates to Manet's, to Gauguin's, van Gogh's,
Cezanne's, Duchamp's and Mondrian's. They all worked in ways that created
certain kinds of visual paradoxes for the viewer. That Burden was working
in a new medium meant that he was creating new kinds of paradoxes, a kind
which had not been seen before. Others were working along similar lines at
that time, notably Vito Acconci in New York. Burden was influenced
initially, however, by Robert Morris, the Minimalist sculptor, and West
Coast refugee whose work he saw exhibited at Pomona College in the late 60s.
The blankness of Morris' work threw Burden's awareness back on itself,
raising the viewer to the status, if one can say so, of an object. The work
of Marcel Duchamp was also very much in the air, although via lesser artists
such as John Cage.

In his childhood, Burden spent a good deal of time in Italy where, during a
long convalescence in bed from an illness, he decided that he was going to
become an artist. Thus his first resolution to be an aesthetic human being
came in the midst of much ancient art (in Rome) and while being compelled to
do "nothing" while waiting to get well. Both of these influences are
apparent in his early work of the 1970s where references to other art,
minimal activity and time (either very short, very long, or discrete amounts
of it) are explored. I could go on at some length about Chris Burden's
work, and may do so in later issues, but I only wanted to set the stage for
one of his very best and most characteristic works of this period:
The Visitation

In 1974 Chris Burden was invited to participate in a group exhibition taking
place at Hamilton College in New York. He would be the only Performance
artist in the show. His name was listed among the other artists who were
participating in this exhibition.

At the reception for the exhibit, held on November 9, 1974 - which was in
the Art Center, located in an old house, with the works of art scattered
throughout - Burden's work was nowhere in evidence. If anyone happened to
notice this, and asked the curator about it, they were told to follow the
curator, who led them to a stairway to the basement of the house. In the
basement was a large metal door, which divided the basement and behind which
the boiler was housed. Only one spectator at a time was allowed into the
room and the door was closed behind them. Anyone else wishing to see what
was going on had to wait until the other person inside decided to come out.

The first person asking about Burden's work was rewarded by being allowed
entrance into the inner room. Upon emerging half an hour later, the next
person in line asked what had gone on. Oddly enough the first viewer would
not answer. This increased people's curiosity, and word spread that
"something" was going on in the basement. People lined up trying to get in.
Because no time limit was set for those actually entering the boiler room,
people tended to remain inside for about a half an hour. This created
intense suspense in those waiting. Finally, people began kicking in the
windows around the basement hoping for a look inside. What was going on?
Why would no one say anything upon leaving? It was too much for people to
bear. Was there violence, or some sort of ritual, or something even
stranger happening inside the room? People were left to guess.

In fact, the "object" of everyone's curiosity, the "event" was largely they
themselves. People's frenzied attempts at witnessing what was going on was
what was going on. Inside the room itself, which consisted of the boiler
and several niches in the brick foundation to the house, sat Chris Burden,
alone in a small chair, lit only by some glowing coals placed around it. He
sat there, saying and doing nothing. When the individual viewer's eyes
became accustomed to the gloom, he or she perceived Burden sitting there,
and opposite him was another chair, empty for the viewer to sit in if they

Those who made it into the room (there were only 15, since the reception and
opening day of the exhibit lasted only 8 hours on the day in question) could
sit and talk to Burden, or not, as they desired. He sat there, occasionally
conversing with the people, but otherwise did and said nothing unusual. The
effect of this mystery on the spectators was electric. Those who made it
inside felt, perhaps since "nothing" had happened, that they had "nothing"
to say about it, or felt that it would destroy the delicate aura surrounding
the experience by gabbing about it so soon after leaving. Thus they said
nothing, perpetuating and increasing the mystery of the work in progress.
The others on the outside were not doing "nothing," they were doing a lot.
Much of it was perhaps undignified, breaking windows, but the point here is
that Burden was able to create a situation where the traditional roles of
artist and spectator were spectacularly reversed. It must have been an
amazing sight and an amazing experience.

I find this piece to be one of the most interesting that anyone has done who
is an American-born artist. It has an aura of indefinability, and personal
power, that is at the same time unpoliticized, unracist, unsexist,
uncapitalistic, unsocialistic, but not unreligious. The title "The
Visitation" is derived from the visit by the virgin Mary to her cousin
Elizabeth, an obscure biblical event. A "visitation" can also be an
unwanted stay by a visitor who remains overlong, a visit by a clerical
official, or a visit to an inmate in a prison. The work does not revel in
its Catholic references, those being subsumed by the work's undeniably
"real" and "artistic" context, but the idea of a powerful, animistic
presence, not unlike a God of some sort, is inescapable. But who is
"visiting"? It is not some archangel, come to do God's work - but instead
anonymous "artgoers", normal people, coming to witness something they have
no idea of, but which is both very personal and universal, and attracts them
strongly nonetheless. Burden is much more like an archangel, but he is not
coming, rather he is the one being visited. So even the title to this work
is a paradox in relation to the Christian sources from which it comes.

Burden may also, if the boiler room can be likened to the manger at
Bethlehem, resemble the Christ child (who was born in an "unvalued" place),
and the viewers were like the holy visitors who were directed to witness him
in awe and mystery. The effect of this piece must have been as close to a
religious experience as there is in recent modern art, given its
unexpectedness (an aspect of the work well understood and played upon by
Burden), and our skeptical and materialistic natures. That there was really
very little to behold somehow increases the wonder of the piece, in the
attempt to figure out its attraction.


Burden is certainly the master of Performance Art in America. Not even Vito
Acconci's work of the early 70s equals Burden's in power. However, Burden,
being a difficult personality at best, has soured on the incredible
insipidity, cupidity, venality, banality and ignorance of the official
artworld, and has sold out - now making what look to be variations on rec
room model car sets, imbedded in large matrixes of concrete, and which are
for sale. He's sick of everyone, apparently, and I can't blame him.
Personally, I wouldn't wish this state of mind on him, but then, life is not
kind, kindred spirits are few, and he has to earn a living. So, evidently
he has decided to "put on his top hat, put on his dancing shoes..."

But for a few years in the early 70s, America had the most mysterious artist
alive. That no one cares today is a testament to our voracious culture,
which consumes without understanding, and then shits out the husks. It is
also true that his work is not ultimately as great as, say Piet Mondrian's,
Duchamp's, Godard's or Bartok's in this century, but they are very tough
acts to follow. This gives our indifference to his work more justification.
It also highlights the fact that America has just not produced artists of
the very highest order yet. And it may never. I feel that great art is
becoming less and less possible in this society despite its material wealth.
Intellectually and emotionally the U.S. is becoming more like a kennel than
a society. I know the incomprehension with which my own work is perceived,
and for anyone to overcome the mercilessly mercenarily mercantile
environment of our culture will require someone of almost superhuman
integrity, inner strength and goodwill. Who can be thus impervious, when
there are no living models to take inspiration from? One must look to the
past in art, not out of nostalgia, but merely to understand how others
overcame their cultural limitations, and kept faith with themselves, for our
benefit. I find it harder and harder to do, but it still amuses me in some
way to toss my life away in this fashion, since I still keep a glimmer of
optimism that it will not entirely be in vain. Silly me. Perhaps all
artists maintain this secret kind of optimism. If you do, then you have my
sympathy, and my solidarity. It's not worth much, but, one never knows,
perhaps it may be of some help, some day.

If you are creative, you must continually challenge your own assumptions,
taste and knowledge. But saying it is not doing it. And doing it is beyond
the ken of explication. Chris Burden tried very hard. He failed in his
ambition, and ultimately gave the game up, but did some good art
nonetheless. Living culture needs living, defiant, resilient and unco-opted
souls. We can talk about this all day long, someone just has to do it. Be
the first on your hemisphere.

(See references to Burden in Harry Roche's interview. 1)

Copyright © 2002 John Sheridan
Here is a link to a very important article on one of America's greatest living artists, Chris Burden. It is the best I have ever read written about him, it's by Robert Horvitz and originally appeared in ARTFORUM magazine, in May of 1976. This article had a dramatic effect on my art.
Jerome du Bois references Burden's The Visitation in his analysis of the Mexican artist Santiago Sierra, in July of 2003.