From Flash Art International 144 January-February 1989
Marc Selwyn: Your work seems to focus on certain aspects of contemporary industrialized society such as violence, nuclear threat, technology, mass-media. Were your performances, which often involved physical danger and isolation, a reflection of the human condition in contemporary society?
Chris Burden: The most notorious performance piece was Shoot and shooting people is certainly as American as apple pie. It was an inquiry into what it feels like to be shot. Two or three thousand people get shot every night on TV and it has always been something to be avoided. So I took the flip side and asked, “What if you face this head on?”
MS: You seem to be taking people’s abstract fantasies and playing them out, putting them into concrete forms.
CB: One of the reasons my work carries is that people fantasize a lot about it or me, and it becomes a trigger for their own fantasies – in a way maybe liberating. Take the shelf piece for example…
MS: …White Light/White Heat, where you spent twenty-two days on a platform ten feet above the gallery floor without being seen.
CB: My fantasy was that people would come in, and the gallery wouldn‘t tell people that I was there (which I had no control over once I was on the platform), that people would sense my presence in spite of not being able to see me. It was like a pure conceptual artwork because visitors came to the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York and confronted a big shelf that looked kind of like a Donald Judd, and almost against my instructions the gallery personnel would tell people, “You know the artist is up there.”
They couldn’t confirm that visually so it was only information that changed their feeling about that room, you could believe it or not believe it, but it was simply pure information. It was a really clean piece in a way, and the ones that believed it (about half were disbelievers) empathized with me. When you go up there for the first couple of hours, you say to yourself, “This is a long time,” and you are really scared whether you can stay up there. ls it going to get too hot? Will I get sick? I didn’t eat for three weeks. I wasn‘t there against my will. I was there because I wanted to be and was exploring something. It wouldn’t have been the same if the Khmer Rouge had been holding me up on the platform. That piece became almost a microcosm, or a model for life itself, because toward the last couple of days I was really sad that it was going to be over. The longer you stay there the more you like it. What seemed like a huge amount of time all of a sudden was gone, and it becomes almost an analogy for your own life.
MS: How important is the mass media attention that you receive to the content of the work? ls it important as a record of the event?
CB: It is important but you can do it in a lot of ways. You can do a sketch, you can write about it, you can tell somebody. It is important because I want other people to know about it, I don’t think art happens in the closet. But between the photograph and the performance, I will go for the performance. I will even go back and take the photograph afterwards or stage it afterwards. The photograph is nothing but a symbol, everybody knows that, and that’s why I like still photographs. Everybody knows that they are lies… they are just a hint of the real thing, just a little tidbit, a tip of the iceberg. But films and videos are problematic because people watching those things think they have actually seen the performances, so I have always stuck pretty much to still photography.
MS: What is the purpose of the photographs and the relics? Is it simply documentation or is it also an attempt to recreate part of the performance? In Trans-Fixed, for example, where nails were driven through your palms into the roof of a Volkswagen, those nails become almost religious relics. If we had the nails on Jesus crucifixion, we would put them in a glass box and surround them with velvet in much the same way.
CB: When I was doing a performance, I wasn’t thinking that I was making a relic. It just turned out that years later, I was keeping these little objects, like the lock from the locker piece or the nails from Trans-Fixed in a little box in the garage like souvenirs. But they have power like real relics because they were things used in the performance. Later I got the idea of showing them, but that wasn’t my original intent.
MS: Does the mass media attention you receive in any way function as it did for an artist like Andy Warhol where the attention was so much a part of his image and the work?
CB: I don’t think so. I think my person is separate. The mass media pretty much distorted what I did. I would read what they wrote and say, “Good God, who are they talking about?” I got a lot of notoriety but it was pretty much sensationalistic press. If anything, they helped me stop doing the performances earlier than I would have. It got so that if I kept doing them, I would be fulfilling their criticism. It was frustrating because I would spend hours talking to them about what I was doing, how it was a private thing. When I did Shoot, I didn’t call NBC, the last thing I wanted was a whole TV crew there. They were really private kinds of events– almost religious in a way. I was the artist and I control them. Once you get a bunch of people here, then they start controlling things, you loose control, and the control is really important.
MS: One of the interesting things about your work is that you are taking control of fate, you are setting up experiences that most people only come upon haphazardly. There is this tension between being in control and taking part in a event that’s totally out of control.
CB: I think the performance pieces were about that, and in that way I see them as some sort of lab experiment where everything is set up to a certain point– fairly, precisely, and then at some point you have to abdicate control, and that’s where it gets interesting. I don‘t know how many people saw it, maybe 10 or 15, but in Shoot, for example, nobody brought a first-aid kit because everybody was convinced that the bullet was just going to scratch my arm and that one drop of blood would come out like I told them. That’s not how it happened, but that’s how it was supposed to happen.
MS: You have done at least two pieces that physically “attacked” the museum like Samson where the rotation of the turnstyle at the museum’s entrance destroyed the museum walls and Exposing the Foundation of the Museum at MOCA. Do you see museums as institutions that insulate art from the outside world? Do you see them functioning as a negative force?
CB: Those pieces are about the building, about the nature of the institution as it is seen today by the people who run it. What is the function of that building? There have been a number of cases recently, like the new building at MOCA and when the Museum of Modern Art got redone, where the building becomes more important than its contents. People weren’t talking about the art at MOCA, they were talking about Isozaki’s new building; that became the big deal– the structure, the temple, the monument to the wealthy. The real function is lost, but I think the idea is O.K. I think museums function the way churches function for religion … it is the place where you go to do it.
MS: Are there pieces that you have fantasized about doing that have been impossible to accomplish?
CB: There‘s one called Moon Piece. It involves putting into orbit a huge satellite whose only purpose is to reflect sunlight. My idea is to have it one tenth the size of the moon so that it would look like a big car headlight– so that if you were an aborigine and if you hadn’t read the New York Times…
MS: Your work often involves great risks. Do you see your risk–taking as different from that of an avant–garde painter, for example, whose risk–taking is stylistic? Don’t their risks pale in comparison?
CB: But what would a test pilot say about my work? It’s all relative. Part of the problem I have with painting in general is that in this day and age it is just too narrow a focus– it becomes too limited. I have never made a painting my whole life. I was always able to avoid them. Painting is having a big resurgence because now is a conservative time. There is a whole genre of painters now– and I can’t believe that in the over view, 200 years from now, that stuff is going to be important.
MS: You don’t seem to subscribe to postmodernism. You still believe there is room for breaking new ground.
CB: Yes. I remember the Sherrie Levine’s in the “Image of Abstraction” show at MOCA. I remember reading a blurb on the wall that said it was a big deal that her stripes are off center. I was saying to myself, “Come on you guys. I’m not sure this is a burning issue in this day and age.” It’s almost like an ostrich position-putting your head in the ground. But on the other hand I don’t think that art’s purpose is a didactic one. It is more of an inquiry. I also have problem with art that becomes a vehicle for propaganda.
MS: What’s the difference then between propaganda and a piece like The Reason for the Neutron Bomb?
CB: With my pieces, you make your own conclusions. You bring something to it yourself, it triggers something in you. I got shit in New York for the neutron bomb piece. The reviews said, “Unlike Hans Haacke who takes a stand, Burden refuses to take a stand.” It was a political “no no” not to take a strong anti-war stand.
MS: Do you see yourself in a way as a psychologist exploring the way your body or your mind reach things?
CB: Your concept of a scientist is really programmed, neat pens, clean and tidy and directed. But if you start talking about how they entered into new areas of inquiryhunches1 think art and science are really similar. The same motivations the same sort of mental processes go on. You follow leads, your intuition. I think academia tries to pound all that stuff out of you– you are supposed to have an answer for everything. Look at us, it isn’t good enough that I did the art. I need to talk about it too and justify it, and that all comes from this overly structured society where everything has to have a reason and an explanation.
MS: But you also seem to be fascinated by scientific phenomena. What was your idea behind The Big Wheel? Were you intrigued by the idea of stored energy?
CB: Yes. I had been reading about flywheels and how they do store energy and I finally found one. It was 8 feet in diameter and made out of cast iron. The Big Wheel is a very successful sculpture. It‘s both scary and hypnotic. When you rev up the motorcycle and drive it in place, the big wheel is like three tons spinning and you realize that it’s totally contained·—like a Neanderthal atomic bomb. it’s right there. But if it ever gets out of that little tressle, it would slice right through the building. There’s not much mystery about it except why is it moving? Nine out of ten people who come into the gallery and see the motorcycle sitting there can’t figure out why the wheel is moving– they can’t make the connection that the motorcycle gets pushed against the wheel and gets ridden in place. The rear tire of the motorcycle makes contact with the wheel, you sit on the motorcycle, and drive it in place until you are going as fast as you can. Then you turn off the motorcycle, pull it away, and there’s the wheel spinning away for three hours: You are fairly confident that it’s contained but you can’t help but fantasize. You immediately think of all these images of what would happen if that thing jumps off track. And yet it’s almost hypnotic– it makes just a little bit of noise from the wind– so it’s seductive and soothing on one hand, yet your mind is aware of the flip side– its potential for being highly destructive.
MS: Your fascination with technology is often coupled with a fascination with outer space. You once said you were training to be an astronaut.
CB: In the 16th century, Europe was poised for the New World. Right now man is poised for a new frontier. If man gets off the planet it won’t really matter whether the planet is destroyed or not because we will go other places. Once man gets out there and can adapt to it, it’s going to get weird, it’s going to be weird to be born on a space ship-it’s going to be really hard to control those people. Right now there is this fantasy that we can control them from a central command, “Come back! Go back around Mars twice …” again it’s positive and negative. As much as there are millions of starving people on earth and there are all these earthly problems, I think going to outerspace is basically a hopeful, positive activity.
MS: Now that you have turned to constructions, more conventional sculpture, do you miss the thrill of the performances, the sense of danger?
CB: The hardest thing about the performances was not the danger, it was the anticipation of having to stoically wait for two and a half months and psychologically prepare. I think people have a real misconception about the performances, that they are off the cuff things, or “Hey, if he comes to our house he might do a performance.” Of all the things I have done they are probably the most precise and thought out, even though there is nothing there really in the end. I don’t miss that pre-event anxiety at all.
MS: Do you identify with the idea of self sacrifice by the artist, with people like Hermann Nitsch? Are you part of that tradition in any way?
CB: I think Hermann Nitsch is very creepy. l think he is into something really kind of dark and evil. He did a piece in L.A. and I wouldn’t go see it. There‘s an evil force behind it.
MS: Were the pieces where you purchased advertising time on television a way of fighting back at the media, a way of getting revenge?
CB: Yes it is revenge. It used up all my money but, it’s a tremendous feeling of power when you drive around and think my commercial is on. They were very upsetting to the industry. Usually the salesman that booked them would get fired. l thought if I buy the time it’s not like being on an interview show where I was basically just fodder for their program and had no control. When you buy your own advertising time, you own that time; maybe it’s only ten seconds, but goddamn it, it’s my ten seconds.
MS: What was the purpose of the ad pieces like Chris Burden Promo?
CB: That was kind of a comment on television. A friend of mine told me that a poll had been taken of the man on the street, and there were five names that the man on the street knew were names of artists. They were Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Picasso. On the television ad, I showed those five names and then the last one was my name. The irony was that if I had enough funds, in five or ten years you could ask the man on the street the same question, and there would be six names and mine would be among them. It wouldn’t just be a joke anymore it would be real, it would be as real as those other names.
MS: What about the TV Hijack piece where you took total control of the station and then destroyed the tape afterwards?
CB: Interestingly enough, it sort of predated a bunch of actual TV hijackings. I was asked if I wanted to come onto an art interview show. They said I could do anything, and several proposals came up. I was going to live there and the camera would be on me all weekend, or I was going to do a show where I would eat the show after it was taped. Originally they said yes. But when it came down to actually doing them, they would nix them, and I said O.K., we can just have a talk situation, we will talk about all the things I can’t do on the air and one of them was a TV hijack. So I demonstrated a TV hijack, and there was a tough moment there because they didn’t know whether it was simulated or real. My plan was that I would go into the control room afterwards, get the tape, destroy it and offer them my tape which was the video recording of the production of this thing and its destruction. The production and embodiment in a physical hard object and the destruction of that object. Basically I felt like it was a contest as to who was in control, the director or me. Was I invited there to do an art piece? Or am I here so that he can make his artful television show?
MS: It’s been a long time since a group of artists have believed that they could change society through their work. The last time there has been such a movement may have been the surrealists.
CB: I’m not sure you are right. I mean Andy Warhol certainly changed the way we view our culture. I’m not sure he was optimistic about it, but point in fact, he did, and the man in the street is not aware of it, doesn’t know how his life was changed by him, but it was.
MS: But do you feel that through your work you can change the way people think about technology or nuclear war?
CB: Yes. I’m not sure it’s always for the good. You can look at the neutron bomb piece and think, goddman, we do need the neutron bomb.
MS: Many of your other post-performance pieces have that ambiguity. The submarines in All the Submarines of The United States of America, for example, which are made out of cardboard, would disintegrate if placed in water, yet their numbers are impressive, even overwhelming. Then there’s A Tale of Two Cities which makes war look so.
CB: …Inviting? I think society feels that ambiguity. You talk to any male who was in World War II, and that was the highpoint of his life. There’s something in human nature about war that makes people feel alive. When life is so ephemeral at that point, life becomes fuller. It’s pretty bizarre. The travel, buddies, sense of purpose, but then there’s the horror of it too, it’s like a double-edged sword.
MS: Aside from its political ambiguity, The Reason for the Neutron Bomb is both beautiful and symbolic of mass destruction.
CB: Yes. It looks like a Bridget Riley painting, like an op art painting: all those little moiré patterns. But if you know what the contest is, you start placing them, like “I’ll put 50 in Lyon and 150 in Paris.” You start playing General in your mind.
MS: But when somebody sees The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, how do you expect them to react? Do you want them to be impressed by the size of the threat? I’ve always thought of you as a pacifist.
CB: I’m not so sure. I don’t have a preconceived idea of how they should react. My basic premise in that piece was that decisions are made on too great an abstraction. I was reading these figures in the newspaper, ”The reason for the neutron bomb is that there are 50,000 Russian tanks – five .. zero… zero… zero… zero, are you sure you didn’t drop a zero in there? I wanted to take that information and change it into another form so that you could see it from a different angle. You can reach the conclusion that goddamn it, that is a lot of tanks, and we are stupid not to make the neutron bomb, or you can say the neutron bomb is terrible.
MS: How concerned are you about the formal qualities of the performances; the way the photographic records of your pieces look? Take Doorway to Heaven, for example. The photograph is very spectacular and well composed, but that has nothing to do with the event itself: Were you concerned with the way the photograph would look as you conceived the piece?
CB: Yes. I’m very concerned about that. In Doorway to Heaven, for example, I knew what the photograph would look like, and the photograph looks the way I wanted it to. The photograph is important because it becomes a symbol for the whole event and also an image in itself. I think a lot of my performance can be represented by a single image, and for performances that is unusual. They were structured as single events simple minded, direct kinds of things, and they lend themselves to one photograph that can stand for the entire thing.
MS: Which makes them more sculptural.
CB: Yes. I saw them as sculpture. They were a way of making sculpture without having an object.
MS: Why would you call a piece like Doorway to Heaven “sculpture” when the emphasis is on the event, the danger?
CB: Because the piece was conceived as a response to that architecture, to that inset doorway of my studio on the Boardwalk in Venice. The pieces were triggered by a physical space and conceived as a response to that space. When I did the Five Day Locker Piece, which was really the first performance, instead of building a box and staying for five days in the box I built, which I would have done a year and a half before, I finally realized that I could do the action without making the object, and that was a big breakthrough.
MS: Did the title Doorway to Heaven, have any religious connotations to it? Was part of the point that you thought you might die from electrocution? It also seems like a tongue-in-cheek comment on religion.
CB: In retrospect, that was probably the one really dangerous piece that I have done, and it was probably a comment on Saint Peter’s gate. Trans-Fixed was a modern crucifixion where man is strapped to a machine. The Volkswagen made this high pitched noise almost like a scream. Those pieces were almost like apparitions, and like apparitions, they are almost unreal in a sense. They are pretty short- almost like a falling star. Doorway to Heaven took 30 seconds maximum. In Trans-Fixed the Volkswagen was pushed out for about a minute or two minutes; so if you were walking down the alley and looking at the surf, instead of at the garage where the Volkswagen was, you would have missed the whole thing.
MS: What is the message of the more recent military pieces: the planes, ships, and subs?
CB: The ships were basically throw-backs to warships and also implied the future like the space ships. I think ships are basically a metaphor or a model. Travel in outer-space is similar to travel in the ocean, they are both negative and positive. They speak of war and warships but they also speak of the future. They are hopeful. In some of the newer ones I am building systems on them that actually function as on-board mechanisms that fuel themselves.
MS: The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria are also military ships?
CB: Yes. They have guns on them and cans of tomato sauce that have Botulism in them- like Trojan horses. They are basically assemblage pieces. I heard a news report on the radio that a tomato can had Botulism in it and I discovered that I had a can from the same lot, and I stuck that on the ship so that when they ride to some distant shore they feed that to the natives.
MS: In those pieces, there is a sharp contrast between the high technology of the object that you are dealing with, like a submarine or a battleship, and the fact that they are made out of such primitive materials– like the Ship-0-Corks which was made of wine corks. Why did you make the airplanes out of firecrackers and colored paper, for example?
CB: I have used those airplanes in a couple of different pieces. Just for fun as an adult I started building model airplanes. And there’s a part of me that wants to work for the defense department because I think I could do a better job – that’s where the real money is, the real money is not in the art world it’s in microweaponry. The plane is an object of fun yet really the Stuka was an object of psychological terror: you hear them from above. I always felt a little weird about the color in those, part of me wants to change them to a tougher color like grey or silver, but they are like little candies for me.
MS: Doesn‘t that make them more ironic, give them an extra edge?
CB: Yes, maybe you see them as sort of balloons, “Happy Birthday!” but wait a minute, all these guys have a firecracker! They were kind of tongue in cheek.
MS: There’s that whole tension between the fact that they are toys, yet on the other hand they represent destruction and violence.
CB: Toys aren’t harmless though, we all know that. They basically mold you. A little girl plays with Barbies, we give her a little kitchen set. Toys become the model by which children become adults, they are very important.
Marc Selwyn is an art critic living in New York.