Dangerous Art: The Weapons of Performance Artist Chris Burden

Performance artist Chris Burden has taken art, and his body, to the extreme. In the 1970s, Burden made a controversial series that focused on endangering himself with the help of everyday props. His weapons of choice? Guns, cars, fire and glass shards.

Trans-Fixed, 1974.

A Volkswagen Beetle: In a 1974 performance Burden literally transfixed himself to the rear bumper of a Volkswagen Bug with nails through the palms of his hands. Burden, in all his Christ-like glory, was rolled out of a garage and presented to a group of spectators in Venice, California. The engine revved at full throttle for two minutes, symbolizing the sound of screaming pain, and then Burden disappeared back into the garage like an apparition.

Shoot, 1971

 A .22 Rifle: In 1971 Chris Burden got shot. Don’t worry, it was part of his art piece, Shoot. Standing 13 feet away from each other, surrounded by bare white walls, a friend shot Burden with a .22 rifle. He explained his motives as thus: “I had an intuitive sense that being shot is as American as apple pie. We see people being shot on TV, we read about it in the newspaper. Everybody has wondered what it’s like. So I did it.”

Burden later admitted that it was only supposed to be a graze wound, but his friend missed and actually shot him in the arm. Oops. Wonder if they’re still friends?





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Match Piece, 1972. Photo: R. Boss

Fire: Using the heat generated from two transistorized TV sets, Burden lit aluminum foil-wrapped matches and launched them with two paper clips toward a naked woman on the floor. Although not harming himself, the danger of Burden’s previous pieces is still very much present here. The woman is said to have flinched when burning matches grazed her while Burden kept his focus only on the small TVs.

Fire Roll, 1973.

More Fire: In another flame-related performance a few years later, Burden set himself on fire. Burden explained his process simply: “I placed the pants on the floor and saturated them in lighter fluid. I lit the pants on fire and extinguished the flames with my body. I turned on the lights and returned to watching television.” So he used his body to extinguish the burning pants that he was wearing.

Chris Burden, Through The Night Softly, 1973.

Broken Glass: In his ironically titled 1973 piece, Through the Night Softly, Burden slithered across broken glass in his underwear with his hands bound behind his back. An audience uncomfortably watched Burden’s agonizing pain as shards of glass shredded the front of his body. As if this wasn’t enough, Burden went on to purchase late night commercial spots on a local TV station, running a ten second clip of the piece so that the discomfort of pain could be felt within the comfort of homes around California.

What was the point of these acts and how can this abuse of your own body be called “art”?!?

Find out on The Art Story website: http://www.theartstory.org/movement-performance-art.htm

Read more about Burden’s life and career here: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-burden-chris.htm

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