An intriguing look at the life and work of an artist that leaves it to the audience to draw conclusions.



Any attempt to assess the late Chris Burden as an artist reveals him as somebody difficult to pin down and the same is true when it comes to understanding his character. Born in 1946, he died of cancer in 2015 and just before his demise he had talked at length on camera for this film about himself. He comes across as an engaging man who does not put on airs and, rather than being self-assertive, can speak of his past work with humour. That even applies to the incident that propelled this American to fame. Having initially considered a career as an architect, he went on to think about becoming a sculptor but instead he sought out new ground as a performance artist. It was in that guise that he arranged to be shot by a friend. The intention was that he should receive a mere scratch but he ended up with an arm wound and, being a radical who claimed that art has no purpose, he called the incident art in the odd belief that you can do anything and call it that.


Burden includes footage of the shooting that went wrong in addition to other set-ups in which he courted danger and injury while yet remaining confident that he would survive. Even so, another such event involved Burden being crucified by being nailed through his hands to a car. In assembling the documentary, the two filmmakers, Richard Dewey and Timothy Marrinan, haven't hesitated to include existing footage of critics hostile to Burden - one of them criticises what he sees as a sadomasochistic element in his art, while our own Brian Sewell is heard more than once refuting the notion that Burden’s so-called art had any value whatever.


Other bizarre notions that followed included Burden placing himself under glass in a museum for days on end, an event which would unexpectedly find a sceptical Roger Ebert seeing something in him after all. But after the mid-70s Burden would go in a different direction: initially he might produce work still odd and dangerous such as the creation of a huge spinning fly-wheel which could go out of control. Later, however, he would produce objects ranging from tower structures to a remarkable model epitomising L.A. and entitled Metropolis. Towards the end of his life one installation using lamps to create a temple of light and another known as Ode to Santos Dumont which featured a kinetic airship sculpture would both prove to be genuinely engaging works of popular appeal.


So how does one assess an artist whose style of work ranged so widely? And what does one make of Burden himself when the personality we witness on screen seems so far removed from the man described by acquaintances who talk of his excesses with cocaine and alcohol and describe how at times he seemed dangerous to be around (in 1981he was noted for carrying a loaded gun and at times his attitude to life and to what he considered art could be regarded as pushing him towards violence)? This film fails to reconcile all the contradictions and that could be seen as a failing, but it offers a useful survey enabling the viewer to reach his or her own conclusions. As it happened, the film came up just in time for Burden to tell his own story and one is drawn into it at the outset. Here we see a roll of film from 1976 on which the names of great artists are listed: the likes of Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Picasso are followed by the name of Chris Burden. What attracts here is Burden’s comment on it: he considered adding Warhol, he tells us, but then refrained: the latter was still alive at the time, and why should he give Warhol a free advertisement?




Featuring  Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Peter Plagens, Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, Barbara Smith, Larry Gagosian, Marina Abramovic, Billy Al Benston, Larry Bell, Bruce Dunlap, Frank Gehry, John McEnroe.


Dir Richard Dewey and Timothy Marrinan, Pro Dan Braun, Josh Braun, Richard Dewey, Timothy Marrinan and David Koh, Ph Joe Anderson, Chris Ferguson and Timothy Marrinan, Ed Michael Aaglund and Aaron Wickenden, Music Andrew Bird, Ru Hazell and Roger Goula Sarda.


Screenprint Pictures/Submarine/Dogwoof-Dogwoof.
88 mins. USA/UK/Belgium/Sweden. 2016. Rel: 5 May 2017. No Cert.