BLOG Category: Performance Art

Chris Burden: Exposing the museum’s system of power
Become a Superhuman via Art Exercises (and Marina Abramović)
Seven Female Artists Whose Work Shaped History
Six Times Chris Burden Was More Extreme Than You
Dangerous Art: The Weapons of Performance Artist Chris Burden
Student Ambassadors Program Overview
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.

Become a Superhuman via Art Exercises (and Marina Abramović)

Part I: The Background

Over the course of her performance art career, Marina Abramović developed a signature method of techniques that would allow her to reach a higher plane of consciousness required for grueling, endurance-based work. She researched various spiritual and cultural realms, oftentimes spending time with people such as the aboriginal tribes of Australia or Chinese Buddhists. Her learning lent Marina a superhuman sensibility that included the ability to sit for hours on end without moving, to conjure laser sharp focus while spending extended periods of time in repetitive action, or to withstand intense self-inflicted pain.

In The Artist is Present, 2013, she employed the culmination of a career’s worth of her method to be able to sit physically present over many days while still intimately connecting with each and every person who came to sit with her. Although she was physically exhausted and mentally depleted by the end of the performance, viewers had no visible hint of her suffering throughout the piece.

Marina coined her practices the Abramović Method, an exploration of being present in both time and space, incorporating exercises that center on breath, motion, stillness and concentration. She has since shared it via workshops with both aspiring artists and non-artists looking to reach a higher plane of existence.

Part II: The Logic of The Method

Abramović has described the steps as follows: For each workshop, I would take between twelve and twenty-five students outdoors, always to a place that was neither too cold nor too hot, never uncomfortable, and, while we fasted for three to five days, drinking only water and herbal teas, and refraining from speaking, we would do various exercises.

Some examples:

  • BLINDFOLD: Leave home and go to the forest, where you are blindfolded, then try to find your way back home. Like a blind person, an artist needs to learn to see with his or her whole body.
  • LONG WALK IN LANDSCAPE: Start walking from a given point, proceeding in a straight line through the landscape for four hours. Rest, then return along the same route.
  • WALKING BACKWARD: Walk backwards for four hours, while holding a mirror in your hand. Observe reality as a reflection.
  • FEELING ENERGY: With your eyes closed, extend your hands in front of you toward another participant. Never touching the other person, move you hands around different areas of their body for one hour, feeling their energy.
  • SLOW-MOTION EXERCISE: For the entire day, do everything very slowly: walking, drinking water, showering. Peeing in slow motion is very difficult, but try.
    Toward Our Center:

Part III: Toward Our Center:
Abramović Discusses Presence and Purpose

Part IV: The Abramović Method in Action

Abramović has held workshops from Athens to Sydney, called Marina Abramović: In Residence where she mentors young artists in an intensive two-week program, which culminates in a group show where the artists use what they learned in the Abramović Method.

Here is Abramović describing her method at the Australian workshop: link

A Sample Lesson For You:

By creating her signature method and sharing it with the public, Marina has evolved her work as a performance artist into one of a great teacher. She has spent a career using her body as a medium and now she asks others to consider using theirs to become fully present in their own lives and to embrace the empowerment that results both on an individual level and as part of a connected humanity at large.

Through her MAI Institute, Abramović continues to spread these principles through collaborations with artists and cultural organizations and to groups and individuals looking to benefit personally from her knowledge.

Further Info:
More on The Marina Abramović Institute
The life and art of Marina Abramović  (on The Art Story)

Seven Female Artists Whose Work Shaped History

The fight for women’s rights is not limited to civic realms. During the second wave of feminism in the 1960s, the female art world didn’t demand representation, it created its own. The feminist art movement was born.

In honor of Women’s History Month, the art world is praising the tremendous achievers!

“The Destruction of the Father,” 1974.

Louise Bourgeois, 1911-2010

In the 1970s, an invitation to a “bloody Sunday” critique session at Louise Bourgeois’ house was a privilege. But, young artists had to come ready to defend. At a time when feminist art was finally making waves, Bourgeois continuously challenged the quality of her burgeoning contemporaries at these Sunday salons. She was a ruthless teacher with trailblazer credentials – one of the first artists using genitalia images to comment on gender stereotypes.

Today, Bourgeois is known for tactile sculpture inspired by traumatic childhood events, particularly her father’s infidelity. She often uses opposite sensations (hard, rough materials) to dispute the stereotypical softness of femininity.

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"Accession II," 1968.

“Accession II,” 1968.

Eva Hesse, 1936-1970

In a slew of stiff 1960s Minimalism, Eva Hesse turned geometric sculpture on its head and gave the movement a more human touch.

With contours, translucent materials and texture, her Minimal forms became organic and free-standing. They sculpted space like Robert Morris, but unlike his rigid “what you see is what you see” works, Hesse’s art emits a psychological, even sexual presence.

Subversive and highly influential in a proto-feminist art movement, Hesse inserted artistic conversations on the female body and sexual innuendo into a world of emotionless abstract forms.

"The Dinner Party," 1970.

“The Dinner Party,” 1970.

Judy Chicago, 1939-

An entire book could be written on the artistic importance of Judy Chicago’s 1970 “The Dinner Party.” The ballroom-sized artwork sets a place at the important and monumental table for 39 historical feminists from the Western world, recognizing them for tremendous achievements. Another 999 women are honored with their names inscribed in the white floor in the center of the tables.

In her nearly 50 year repertoire of artwork, Chicago is devoted to art, like “The Dinner Party,” that celebrates women, often using vaginal imagery. She’s an active political powerhouse with a name almost synonymous to feminist art and has founded women-only art studios in California and New Mexico.

“Phalli’s Field,” 1965, New York.

Yayoi Kusama, 1929-

The mother of all things polka dots, Yayoi Kusama began playing with the idea of accumulations, a late 1950s avant-garde concept involving the consolidation of multiples of objects.

Male artist Arman made accumulations famous and Kusama subverted their meaning with a feminist twist. Arman would argue that one high-heeled shoe has a societal association, but 30 high-heeled shoes crammed in a tiny plexiglass case lose their form and influence. So, if one phallus represents power, argues Kusama’s work, then a room of stuffed phallic objects, reflected infinitely in mirrored walls renders that power irrelevant.

Kusama’s work champions sexual liberation, and in her early career, she used her body to as a canvas, a precursor to the feminist performance art movement in the next two decades.

“Eye Body,” 1963.

Carolee Schneemann, 1939-

Reading the negative review of a male critic from a scroll pulled from her vagina, Carolee Schneemann grounded the image of feminist performance art in the minds of all art historians.

Beginning in the 1960s, Schneemann’s art explored the history of women in art and as artists with her nude body as material. At the time, artists like Chris Burden were performing feats of strength and extremity. Schneemann instead opened the arena to female artists, as a space for critical reflection where a female nude means much more than beauty and sexual objectification.

“Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground),” 1989.

Barbara Kruger, 1945-

In the postmodern aesthetic of media and advertising, Barbara Kruger addressed a story that the wasn’t being told in mainstream press: the continued feminist struggle, a daily “battleground” on the female body. Black and white images overlaid with text became her recognized style. In themes like consumerism, feminism, and human condition Kruger gave societal comment that subverted the glitzy images of the 1980s.

She also became the first female artist to be represented by Mary Boone Gallery in New York, breaking the gallery’s usual hankering for macho Abstract Expressionist painters and inserting feminist art into a blue-chip world.

“My Bed,” 1999.

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Tracey Emin, 1963-

In the vein of Carolee Schneemann, Tracey Emin uses personal narrative and objects to speak to the idea of femininity and gender. But, in Emin’s pieces, the “performances” have already happened. While the artist is not directly associated with second wave feminism, her work is often on the same themes translated for a contemporary audience.

With objects from her home and life, Emin blurs autobiography and art. She denounces any ideas of social restrictions and reflects a life that champions gender equality, particularly in gender-specific stereotypes associated with sex.

In 2009, Emin summed up her continued feminist mission: “I have a strong voice and I’m quite feisty but there are a lot of women who aren’t and they need to have laws [protecting them] and rights too.”

Learn more about Feminist Art here:

Six Times Chris Burden Was More Extreme Than You

Burden emerged as a performance artist in 1971, using his own body as the material for works. From self-crucifixion to near-death by water dunk, Burden’s art is ritualistic and always extreme. Here are seven times he proved it.

Five Day Locker Piece, 1971 Did your thesis require five days spent stuffed in an art school locker with only five gallons of water? Probably not. He better have gotten an A.

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Images via Frederick Sanchez

Trans-fixed, 1974 Nailed to a Volkswagen Beetle like a Christian martyr, Burden rolled out of a Los Angeles garage, revved the engine for two minutes and rolled back in. Self-given stigmata are now the signs of a bad-ass.

Image via NXT

Velvet Water, 1974 “Burden relentlessly dunked his head in a filled-up sink, trying to inhale the oxygen-rich water. We sat stupefied, paralyzed, until he seemed to pass out, and the monitor went dark, and that was it.” – Jerry Saltz, 2013. Oh.

Doomed, 1975 Burden lay in complete stillness under a sheet of tilted glass for 45 hours on the floor of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Only when a museum employee, fearing his harm, set a pitcher of water next to him did he smash a ticking clock and end the performance.

His reaction: “I thought, ‘My God, are they going to leave me here to die?’”

That’s dedication.

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Image via Wikipedia Commons

Beam Drop, 2008 (original performance 1984) Sixty I-beams dropped into a trench of wet concrete will definitely make an impact. Dangerous and visceral, this Burden artwork evokes bodily pain in the scraping sound of steel against steel and the splash of unset cement.

Image via Flickr Commons

The Flying Steamroller, 1996 A typical day in Burden’s art may include flying through the air on a counterbalanced steamroller. Art, machine and human transcend all those physical limitations that come with standing on the ground.

For more extreme measures by Chris Burden, click here:

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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:

Read more about Burden’s life and career here:

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