Portraits of Artists 06

Conversation with Chris Burden

Christopher Knight: Your earliest work, I'd say publicly acknowledged work, I guess, dates from about 1971 when you were right out of high school. The preceding decade is marked most emphatically by the watershed of minimalist art and when I use the term Minimalism – you may disagree – I tend to incorporate Pop Art in that phenomenon.

Chris Burden: Hmmm.

CK: I see Pop Art as being kind of the figurative side of the coin. What is the relationship between your body-centred work of the seventies and Minimalism?

CB: What is the direct relationship? I studied minimalist art in college. I made minimalist art as a student. And I started making it bigger and bigger. So, in college I made a couple of sculptures that were really big, I remember 200 feet long. I got permission to use the football field at Pomona College. I was just working on them. Just to go from one end to the other, I was walking along: I'd go down one end to fix something and then I'd have to walk seventy meters and back and forth. I kept thinking what sculpture was. I had a professor named Mowry Baden and Bruce Nauman was doing video tapes and body things and I started thinking: What is the essence of sculpture that is different than painting, that is different from two-dimensional work? A two-dimensional work you stand in front of and look at. Sculpture you are supposed to walk in front and then you walk to the side and you look at the back and you walk around. So what separates sculpture from two-dimensional work is that sculpture forces the viewer to be active, physically active and so I started thinking: What is sculpture? If you take reduction, if you take a minimalist thing, sculpture is action, that is what sculpture does. So then, in graduate school, I did a series of works that involved making objects that forced the viewer to use them.

CK: Like what?

CB: Ah, let's see. a stainless steel bar like a cross and two long stainless steel handles. And you need another person to cooperate and you get on and you become this balance. You need two people and you use this equipment sort of like exercise equipment but the idea is not to exercise. This equipment was to make you do something, a platform that you balanced on, certain handles that you sat in and had to lift your body out. So if you did it right you could sense that it was correct, physically. If you did it wrong you would fall on your face or feel very awkward. I made a whole series of work like that and the idea was to make the viewer active. The problem with these – or the problems that I saw – was that people would come in the gallery or the museum and they would see these objects and they would go: "Oh, it is so pretty, so nice!" And they would see the object as the sculpture when in fact that was not the point at all. The point was to make you use these objects. These objects were just devices to make you become the sculpture, the sculpture being the action. And then I had a show that I was scheduled to do for my graduate program. I kept thinking and thinking. It was an old classroom at UC Irvine and I went there and I saw these lockers and finally figured out that I could do something: Instead of making a box and staying in the box I could use a box that was already made. To me, that was a really important step because then it was clear that the locker was not art. It was only happening when I was in it. When I was gone the art stopped and the locker was not art. As opposed to making a box there could be a confusion, is this a sculpture or not? It is confusing. So, that was a very big step, the idea that I could make art without making an object. And that is how, from that point on, I got to do performances and call them art. To do something, that the act of doing something in itself could be art, that I did not have to make an object.

CK: I am wondering if there is a political dimension to this development in your work?

CB: Well, I think all art is political. But I think too, part of the reason for doing the performances was the feeling in the early seventies of a reaction to this sort of inflated art market where Robert Ryman would make some paintings and six months later they would be worth ten times more. There was this feeling among artists that they had lost control of what art was and what art was about. So part of the idea of making performances – which was a very naive notion – was that we would make an art which could not be bought or sold and thereby gain control over it again. Subsequently everybody has discovered that anything can be sold and manipulated, you know, you sell the Michael Heizer piece or "Earthworks" of Smithson, anything can be sold. But there was a feeling then; it was a reaction and I think that was a part of the outcome of the sixties. It was all part of wanting not to be so commercial and get to the essence, the spirit of what art really was about, to try to regain control of that. So, I think that was maybe another motivation for doing performances.

CK: Did you have specific political interests that were reflected in the early body works? Some people have discussed "Shoot", for instance – with the rifle and being shot in the arm – in the context of the Vietnam War. Were there specific political concerns that impacted what you were doing?

CB: Well, sure! I was really aware of the Vietnam War and I did not go to Vietnam. I was adamantly opposed to going. I think there is a real misconception of what "Shoot" was too. When I did that performance the plan was that the bullet was to scratch my arm, just one little scratch, one drop of blood. So it was to be that grey area between having been shot at and missed, and being obliterated. It is like: If you get a scratch, have you been shot or haven't you? It is not black and white, it is ambiguous: That was the plan. The bullet was supposed to go by, just like a scratch. Everybody there believed that that was going to occur. We didn't have a first aid kit, didn't have a bandage. Everybody there believed that it would be so precise and so controlled that that's what would happen. And in fact, it's not what happened. The bullet went in my arm and out the other side. But I think that was a very important work because I think everybody has fantasized about being shot, either consciously or subconsciously. You read about it, you see it on the TV, and you see it on the news. And so, everybody, especially in America, thinks about it a lot. And I've said this before: It's as American as apple pie – that is, to be shot or shooting people.

CK: You've personally answered this but I'm curious to know what other artists have been important to your own work – either directly through your knowing them or historically or otherwise.

CB: When I first started out there was a group of people in San Francisco that were important to me. Tom Marioni was one of them, Terry Fox, Howard Fried, Paul Kos, William Wegman probably in the early years. Historically, I am from the Duchampian camp, not the Picassian. And I really see that as a major division in art. I mean, the Dadaists were important because when I first started studying art in college my interests lay in that group: the Duchamp group, not the painters. I managed to go through college without ever having made a painting.

CK: Shocking!

CB: It's quite a feat, actually.

CK: It's interesting that the people that you named, from Duchamp on, are not people that one would consider sculptors. So, where does the appeal lie?

CB: In sculpture you mean. Why?

CK: Yeah, because I think of you as a sculptor.

CB: Yeah.

CK: I think, you think of yourself as a sculptor. But the people you've named, none of them would consider to be sculptors.

CB: Really? I always think of Duchamp as a sculptor.

CK: I never think of him as a sculptor. He made paintings too.

CB: I always think of him as a sculptor for some reason, I don't know. Maybe I should tell you a little about my background. I took lots of photographs when I was a teenager, I mean, just enormous amounts. I lived in Europe, lived in Italy, and didn't really have many friends. But I had a Rolleiflex, so I took lots and lots of pictures, sort of in the style of "The Family of Man", you know, that famous book. And before I went to college I worked as a photographer's assistant at Harvard University. In high school I did a lot of ceramics, I made lots of pots. And my fantasy when I went to college was that I would continue making ceramics. When I went to college you couldn't take ceramics because it was at another school and you had to take art classes first. My plan wasn't to be an artist but rather go to architectural school to be an architect. So I took physics classes and I took maths classes and I took art classes: that was the pre-architectural program. And then, once in a while, I worked in an architect's office and what I saw there was very, very discouraging because I saw students who'd gotten out of Harvard University. These are people who've graduated, who've been at university for eight years and they'd be sitting at a desk and they would be drawing bathrooms, you know. The guys who made the decisions were fifty-five years old and they were at the top – literally, in the building. It was an old house and so the draftsmen were down here. I was just the go-for boy, I was like down in the sub-basement. And I thought: "Wait a minute. I don't want to wait that long to make a decision." And then when I went back to college I realized that, as an artist, as a sculptor, I could make something right away and get immediately feedback. So, there was a point when I decided I didn't want to be an architect but a sculptor and I was heavily discouraged from it. I remember the chairman of my department saying: "It's bad enough to be an artist and to be a painter, but to be a sculptor is suicide – basically you'll never. there's no hope." Of course that only fuelled my desire because I think there's a part of me that's anti-authoritarian. So, when he said: "You'll never be able to be a sculptor" then I really went for that, lock, stock and barrel. I think it was good to get all those things behind me – do you know what I'm saying? – to do all that stuff because I'm a teacher now. I teach at the university and students still today they want to learn technique. It's: "How can you make art if you don't know any technique?" It's a real classical attitude: "You have to learn to draw, to learn technique – you have to learn technique first because if you don't have the tools how can you make any art?" I think it's totally wrong but it's a very hard tradition to break. I believe, first you have to think of the ideas and you go out and you find the technique to do it. So, I don't have very many tools. (.) The way art is taught today is problematic because the idea that you learn techniques first and then you go out and once you have this ability, this technical ability, then you can go and produce art, I think, is crazy. First you have to think art and then you go and find the right solution, not the other way around! But students come with these expectations when they come out of high school: "Oh, I'll really learn technique, I'll learn colour." I walk by classrooms and I still hear: "Hot colours come forward, cool colours." It's like: "Says who?" You know, it's really weird.

CK: What's the biggest misconception about your work?

CB: I don't know. What do you think?

CK: I don't know either. I suppose, I would guess, that the biggest misconception about your work is that it means to be hostile.

CB: Yeah, probably. I hadn't thought of that.

CK: And you haven't a hostile bone in your body?

CB: That's not true. I think that performance works, even to this day, especially when you come to a city like Vienna, that's what people still know. They know this body of work and everybody always wants you to keep doing the same thing that you did to get famous. So, they want Frank Stella to always make striped paintings. You know what I'm saying? Once you get known for something they want you to do it forever because it was hard enough the first time to wrestle or understand; but once they understand or they think they understand that body of work they don't want to do it over and over – it's much too hard. So, when you do something new it's very disturbing to people when you change. So, for me, here we are today, we're still talking about "Shoot". I don't think about it – it's like a very, very old girlfriend. I mean, you remember but you don't think about it every day. I think it's a problem that artists have in general. It's like when Mike Kelley started doing the stuffed animals people just had a real problem with that. I think the public wants you to keep doing one thing – the thing that you get known for; they want you to keep doing that.

CK: Hollywood type-casting.

CB: Kind of, yeah. Because it's hard to understand new (.)

CK: You entered the industry in a certain way at one point when you made a group of television spots, television – I hesitate to call them commercials – spots, sound.

CB: No, I used the TV commercial format.

CK: What did you find out by doing that?

CB: Well, to understand those a little bit you have to back up because it was before cable TV, so there were only three television stations: NBC, ABC and. what was the other one?


CB: CBS. And I remember talking: "Ah, damned television, we don't have any choice. You have to take what comes out of a tube and blah, blah, blah." I'm thinking and thinking and thinking and: "Wait a minute! There is one place where you have choice and that's if you pay; if you pay for it then you do have control. Where do you get to pay? You get to pay in the TV commercials, that's where you can have some control." So, I remember walking off the street with my first little film and I walk in: "I'd like to buy some TV time, please." And they just couldn't believe it: This guy's walking in with a 16 mm film in a can. I explained to them: "Well, I'm an artist" and I had to feed them this lie that I'm having a show at an art gallery and it'd help sales if I could do a little commercial. I always had to pay beforehand because I didn't have any credit at these TV stations. I didn't have an account. So, I'd write them the cheque and I'd go home and I'd watch for my commercial to come on. It was a tremendous feeling to watch it come out of the screen, because I realized that not just me but eight, ten million people were being forced to see this, no choice. And it felt very, very good because I was able with a relatively small amount of money to send something back, to have a conversation. So, I was no longer simply a victim, I could victimize others. It was very interesting because what would happen is that they would play it a few times and finally the station manager would be at home watching his own show and my commercial would come on. Well, of course, it didn't look like a Pepsi commercial or soap commercial. It had a kind of a raw quality to it. It was very, very threatening and the station manager would immediately call the control room: "What the hell's happening?!" (.) Finally, for the last one I went to an advertising agency, and I went through the right channels – it's like going to a travel agency – and then there was no problem at all. I really thought: "Why pay them the commission? I should go up, I should walk off the street and do it!" And then, finally, in the end I went through the proper channels and then there wasn't a problem at all.

CK: Great! That's all I have unless there's something else you want to talk about that we haven't. It makes me think about you as being a potter! Going to the TV stations with your commercials is a sort of current version of one theme of the potter!

CB: I'm always amazed at how many people have seen those commercials. I mean, to this day, I can give a lecture somewhere and somebody somewhere invariably in the audience has seen them. They were really strong when they came out, even the later ones got slicker – do you know what I'm saying? – They were more professionally done.

CK: Can you describe a couple of these?

CB: Sure. The one I think that really annoyed people was the names of the famous artists. I don't know if I can remember them all, but I talked to this artist friend, it's actually Tom Marioni from San Francisco, and he said: If you give any man on the street a list of names of artists there's five names that every person will always say is an artist: Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso. – think of someone.

CK: Van Gogh.

CB: Van Gogh. Those are five names everybody agrees are artists. I was going to use Warhol too but he was still alive then, I didn't want to give him a free commercial.

CK: He didn't need a free commercial!

CB: I know. So, what I did is: The names would come from the screens, you know: "Leonardo da Vinci!" It was small and it would come out big. I would say them. And the last name was Chris Burden. It was a list of names and then it just says: "Paid for by Chris Burden, artist." It was a joke – you know what I mean? – but it made people very angry, especially artists. They'd be at home watching television, not thinking about art – "Art is over for the day and now I'm relaxing. I'm not making art. I'm in a non-art-state" – and out of the screen would come this commercial. It just infuriated people because work was over and here I was, and sort of a gall to compare myself with these great masters. The irony of it was: If I was Howard Hughes' son or Ross Perot's son, if I played that commercial enough times – ten, twenty years – if you asked people on the street: "Who are the five names?", I would be one. They'd never know anything I ever did but. So, really, that commercial was about television and the power of television. To me that was funny but it really made people angry.

(Vienna, November 1992)