Cutting edge and controversial American artist Chris Burden (who passed away from cancer in 2015) is a perfect subject for a documentary. He was beloved as much as he was hated and feared, and as much as he was revered. For every person who thought his frequently off-putting or baffling pieces of performance art were brilliant, there were just as many who found them worthless. No two opinions of Chris Burden are the same, whether people loved him or hated him. Similarly, as depicted and interviewed in his later years by documentarians Richard Dewey and Timothy Marrinan, the older and wiser Burden seems like a normal, affable fellow with nary a trace of the enfant terrible that he once was. Contrast that to archival footage and people’s recollections of the artist during his heyday in the 1960s and ’70s and you get a decidedly different, more volatile, almost self-destructive picture of an artist.
The structure of Dewey and Marrinan’s Burden might be boilerplate – relying heavily on archival footage and talking heads – but their subject is so forthcoming and capable of stirring strong emotions and memories in people that the film around him becomes naturally fascinating and unforced. Discouraged by the stagnancy of his first chosen profession – that of an architect – Burden would make his way to UC Irvine to become an avant-garde minded graduate student, where he began to dabble in a form of live-action sculpture that was closer in tone to performance art. He would spend five days confined to a 2 X 2 X 2 locker, and almost as many days just lying beneath a pane of glass in an art gallery while onlookers wondered about his sanity and well being. Those are nothing compared to installations where he allowed himself to get shot in the arm at relatively close range or asking his wife to nail him to the roof of an idling Volkswagen Beetle through his hands.
As unnerving as those works sound, they were early pieces from Burden, and throughout the 1970s he would find new ways to go beyond the norm to frighten people; his behaviour and temperament growing increasingly erratic. Dewey and Marrinan look back on these works and talk to various artists, classmates, and contemporaries and ask whether or not Burden’s art was valid cultural criticism, antagonistic provocation, or merely Burden’s own sadomasochistic streak writ large. Dewey and Marrinan build their film around what Burden and the other subjects have to say about the work, and the results are quite illuminating, despite the works acting as perfect reflections of the titular subject. It’s never exactly clear where the truth of Burden’s work begins and ends, just as his works tend to ask questions that can’t ever be answered by the artist.
With such a prolific workload both in his antagonistic phase and the past couple of decades where he finally married his love of architecture and sculpture into something more widely accessible and palatable by society at large, Burden has its work cut out for it as a film. I’m sure that plenty more could be said about Chris Burden, and I’d even go as far as to say that one could probably make several documentaries from his exploits. For their efforts, however, Dewey and Marrinan have created an encompassing, succinct look at one of America’s most divisive and unsung artistic voices.