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Chris Burden: Exposing the museum’s system of power
John Baldessari: The Conceptual Explorer
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Chris Burden

Chris Burden: Exposing the museum’s system of power

A pioneer of contemporary art since the 1960s, Chris Burden is one of the most acclaimed and outrageous artists in art history. Mostly known for his Performance Art, he dedicated his life to the exploration of the body’s limits to suffering. Although he was mostly drawn into producing art concerned with pain, Burden also explored other matters, including the value of art and the role of the institution that sustains it. Following other like-minded artists, these ideas generated a movement of Institutional Critique, in which artists still widely engage. 

Institutional Critique explores the systems that maintain art and its processes. Drawing attention to the industry that sustains their work, artists started questioning the neutrality of galleries and museums towards the art they displayed. Although museums are seen as educational spaces, the fact is that they often have unstated biases, connections to wealth and power, and other blind spots.

Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971
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Burden earns himself a reputation 

After staging his controversial Shoot performance in 1971, Burden was the artist of the moment. In this daring performance, Burden asked a friend to shoot him with a rifle. The bullet was meant to just slightly scratch his arm, but the plan did not go as expected, and the bullet went a little deeper. He was undoubtedly known to be a risk-taker, but he was not suicidal. The artist explained, in his posthumous 2018 documentary, that his works were all carefully thought out, and he religiously followed a set of rules. But often, these rules were not shared with the viewers or the institution, which produced an enigmatic atmosphere around every artwork he performed.

Chris Burden, Doomed, 1975
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Doomed: The setup

After earning a reputation, Burden was invited to perform at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 1975. In a piece titled Doomed, Burden enacted a passive performance of his potential death. To perform Doomed, the artist asked the museum for two items: an institutional clock hanging in the gallery and a large sheet of glass positioned at 45 degrees to the wall. Burden had planned to lie on the floor under the glass sheet for an undetermined time, with the clock ticking away, marking the passage of time. The piece had its origins in an interview in which Burden was asked about the duration of a performance. Burden simply replied that time did not define the quality of the piece. He subsequently created a time-based performance that included not disclosing the nature of the performance to the museum and not telling the museum that it had total control over the performance length. Time is particularly important to this performance because Burden’s life is not timeless. By handing over the control of this performance to the institution, Burden implicates the museum in his possible death.

Doomed: The Performance

On the day of the performance, an unusual crowd gathered to watch this enigmatic piece. As the viewers walked into the exhibition space, they were confronted with a clock and Burden’s body lying flat under this giant sheet of glass. At the end of the day, when the museum was about to close, the institution was faced with interrupting the piece or letting it go on. The museum decided to let the performance continue for the night, and, to the surprise and worry of everyone, the next day Burden remained in the same position. 

Later in the day, the museum asked a doctor to come and give his feedback on what they should do. The doctor said that Burden could be close to death with urine poisoning, as he had drunk no water nor gone to the bathroom. With this medical advice, the museum staff decided to invade the performance space. Little did the museum staff know that their interruption was exactly the action needed to end the performance. 

After 45 hours and 10 minutes, the institution decided to leave a jug of water near Burden to see how he would react. The artist got up and left the room to get a hammer and an envelope. He used the hammer to smash the clock and inside the sealed envelope were written the intentions of the piece, explaining the three elements (the clock, the glass sheet and his body) and the role of the institution within the performance.

By making the institution an active participant in the artwork, Burden exposed the museum’s boundaries and asked us to rethink how the museum’s galleries are not just neutral receptacles for works of art. The museum must make choices and acknowledge them. Museums and galleries are often perceived as safe, not dangerous spaces, but Burden showed in a dramatic way that the choices a museum makes can have serious consequences. 

Doomed: The Aftermath

In Doomed, Burden truly exceeded his past performances and the expectations of the public. Taking advantage of the fact that the institution did not have any input into the performance, Burden implicated the museum in his actions without its knowledge. This performance was not only a confrontation of power but also a reflection of the bond of trust between the institution and the artists. While embracing the uncertainty of life and death to produce a supercharged piece, Burden handed over the power of his life, which showed how much Burden trusted the museum. Although Institutional Critique’s main intent was to point out issues within the institutions, the performance also suggested that artists did not necessarily want to abolish the museum. Instead, artworks like Doomed point out institutional naivete to inspire significant changes in the art world. The bond between artists and the institutions that sustain art is vital to promote improvements and create a better future for both. 

More on Burden:
Video: Overview of Burden’s works, including Doomed
Video: Chris Burden Documentary trailer (2016)

Written by Tania Teixeira, part of the third cohort of student ambassadors for The Art Story.

I am part of the 3rd cohort of the Student Ambassador Program. I’ve got a Bachelor of Fine Art from Cambridge School of Arts (UK), and I am currently enrolled in a Master of Art in Writing at the Royal College of Art (London). I find myself mainly interested in Contemporary Art since the 1960s, and I am passionate about mixing current political or cultural subjects with art criticism. I aspire to be an acclaimed art theorist/critic, and I believe art provides a deeper understanding of the world, and that it is capable of bringing about big changes.

John Baldessari: The Conceptual Explorer

“I think when I’m doing art,” Baldessari once reflected, “I’m questioning how to do it.” That wasn’t the case when he started out. At the beginning, he was just plain perplexed. It was the early 1950s, and he was studying in California. He majored in art, minored in literature, but by the end of his college degree he felt he was no nearer understanding how to be an artist. How to do it? He decided he needed more training. He needed to follow the same path that artists had traversed before him – acquiring technique and professionalism. So he mastered more styles; he started to paint like those he admired, Matisse and Cézanne; he mastered yet more styles; he became confused. He decided to drive out daily to the cliffs of La Jolla and paint whatever inspired him. Surely, this would force inspiration. It didn’t.

You could say that success only finally came to Baldessari when he accepted failure. When he decided to stop training, stop straining to be an artist. It was around that time, while teaching night school, that he came across a sheet of advice on how to become an artist. Realizing, from his own experience, how absurd that very general advice was, he thought that he might put these cliché ideas to work in an even more absurd and direct way. With that in mind, he made text-paintings such as Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell (1966-8). He then began to wonder if, maybe, art could be about the everyday, about the radically simple.

Perhaps art could be – had to be – ordinary, if it was to continue to matter. So he began to take photographs from the window of his car – driving with one hand, shooting pictures with the other. He transferred the images to canvas and coupled them with simple texts. One picture, Econ-O-Wash (1967-8) shows a car wash glimpsed through passing traffic; below it reads “Econ–O-Wash. 14th and Highland. National City California.” Perhaps art could be made with the slightest of gestures: the video piece I Am Making Art (1971) shows the artist reciting the titular phrase as he makes nothing more than a series of simple arm movements. Perhaps art could be just, well, pointing at things: the painter Al Held had once remarked that that was all Conceptual Art amounted to, so Baldessari responded with a series of paintings in which fingers point, enigmatically, at objects. Perhaps art could be a matter of gathering up the images in the world and rearranging them – for aren’t there already enough images, without artists adding more? And that, in a sense, has been Baldessari’s belief since the late 1970s and 1980s, when he started to make the photo-works for which he is now best known.

Of course, Baldessari wasn’t unique in coming to these realizations when he did. An extraordinary number of artists were doing so – separately, and internationally – in the early 1960s, as Conceptual art began to emerge. Artists were coming to see that the modern art that had once been controversial and critical had now become mainstream, absorbed into museums and galleries, sapped of its force. There was a need to return to first principles – in fact, there was a need to work out what those principles were in the first place. It was time, as Baldessari puts it, to question “how to do it.”

A common, frustrated response to some Conceptual art like Baldessari’s is to ask a similar question: “Is that it?” Surely, art should offer more than arm gestures and Econ-O-Washes? It’s not a philistine response, it’s a fair one, because such simple artworks are precisely intended to provoke and frustrate. They are intended to do all those things that modern paintings and sculptures once did. The question is fair, also, because that sharp provocation has lost its edge over time, smoothed over as we’ve become accustomed to being needled in this way. Now we look back even on those early and revolutionary Conceptual artworks and feel that they are no better than some of the lazier offerings that lesser artists have brought to us since. So, although worrying over who came first rarely helps us to see what truly matters in the history of art, it does in the case of the powerful provocations made by early Conceptual artists such as Baldessari. He was among the first to carry out that generation’s gleeful house-clearing, the first to trash all those dusty store-room ideas about what art should be and what it should look like.


And to take that other, classic, frustrated response to Conceptual art, “But couldn’t anyone do that?” the answer is “Yes indeed.” That’s the point. When Baldessari came to realize that so many of the skills he had acquired in college were of little use in making art for today, he gave us all the wonderful possibility of believing that we too, untrained and untutored, could make something that deserves to be called art. So why don’t we? Firstly, there is the obvious point that art is harder than great artists make it seem: it takes effort to look effortless. Secondly, there is the sadder fact that, if Conceptual art was a kind of war against the institutional nature of the art world, the art world won the war because generally, one still needs to follow the same old paths to be taken seriously as a professional, exhibiting artist. But, thirdly, and finally, perhaps there is no reason why we don’t – perhaps we ought to try.

More on John Baldessari  and Conceptual Art – The Art Story Artist and Movement Pages