I set up these unexpected, dreaded situations as an attempt to control fate. Instead of letting things happen to me, I made them happen.
Gagosian is pleased to present Cross Communication, an exhibition of relics, films, and video works by Chris Burden, plus other materials that document his early performances.
In his performances and audio/video works of the 1970s and ’80s, Burden challenged his own mental and physical limitations while exploring the construction of agency and intent. Fascinated by the mediation of visual language in television advertisements, and by the formulas for fame they seemed to represent, he sought to reflect the emergent violence and complexity of American society. Employing unconventional guerrilla tactics to question the broad acceptance of consumer culture, Burden confronted audiences with their own moral culpability. And over the course of his career, he moved from performances in which his own body functioned as the medium to spectacular large-scale sculptures and installations, a number of which use toy parts or actual vehicles.
Many of Burden’s early performances find the artist placing himself in dangerous or uncomfortable situations that he invested with both visceral impact and metaphorical bite. In Super-8 footage of the notorious Shoot (1971), he is shown being shot in the left arm by a friend with a rifle, while in 220 (1971), he and three others perched on ladders in a flooded gallery, then dropped a 220-volt electric line into the water beneath. In Back to You (1974), a volunteer sticks pins into the artist’s stomach and foot as he lies on the floor of an elevator, while Through the Night Softly (1973) finds him crawling through broken glass on Main Street.
Other films reveal Burden tangling with elemental forces, testing his powers of endurance, or simply pushing his luck. In Fire Roll (1973), he extinguishes a burning pair of pants with his body and in Icarus (1973), he rises from beneath two flaming sheets of glass. In Velvet Water (1974), he makes repeated attempts to breathe liquid in place of air, while B.C. Mexico (1973) sees him survive eleven solitary days on a remote beach. Bed Piece (1972) shows Burden lying in a single bed, where he remained for some twenty-two days; in Deadman (1972), he is secreted beneath a tarpaulin in the altogether riskier location of Los Angeles’s busy La Cienega Boulevard.
Burden’s performances Wiretap (1977), Send Me Your Money (1979), and Atomic Alphabet (c. 1979–80)—represented here by audio recordings—are also documented by objects and what he referred to as “relics.” The photo etching The Atomic Alphabet (1980) lists twenty-six words related to atomic destruction intoned by the artist during the titular rant, and a relic of the 1979 performance preserves the leather jacket that he wore while doing so. Relics of Solaris (1980) include a card table and walkie-talkie that represented “mission control” during a performance in which Burden kayaked out into the open ocean, as if vanishing into outer space. The relic of his 1971 performance Disappearing is an empty vitrine that commemorates three days during which he simply vanished without notice or explanation.
TV Ad (1973), the earliest of Burden’s TV commercial works, which originally aired on LA’s KHJ-Channel 9 every night for a month, includes footage of Through the Night Softly, while the ten-second spot Poem for LA (1975) conveys the still-pertinent messages “SCIENCE HAS FAILED,” “HEAT IS LIFE,” and “TIME KILLS.” Full Financial Disclosure (1977) regales viewers with details of the artist’s annual income and expenses, and Chris Burden Promo (1976) wryly juxtaposes his name with those of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, van Gogh, and Picasso.
In 2022, Gagosian published Poetic Practical: The Unrealized Work of Chris Burden, which documents sixty-seven projects of varying scope and ambition that the artist was unable to complete during his lifetime.