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Monday, May 14, 2007


"Burden's most trenchantly significant work was 'Doomed,' performed in April, 1975, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. He set a clock on a wall at midnight, and lay down on the floor under a leaning sheet of glass. Viewers came and went. Burden didn't move. Inevitably, he soiled his pants. ('It was awful,' he recalled.) Forty-five hours and ten minutes passed. Then a young museum employee named Dennis O'Shea took it upon himself to place a container of water within Burden's reach. The artist got up, smashed the clock with a hammer, and left. He never again undertook a public action that imperilled himself. It wouldn't have made sense. 'Doomed' unmasked the absurdity of the conventions by which, through assuming the role of viewers, we are both blocked and immunized from ethical responsibility. In O'Shea's case, the situation was complicated by his duty to maintain the inviolability of art works. There should be a monument to him, somewhere, which would commemorate the final calling of the bluff of art as a law unto itself. (Would Burden have lain there until he died? 'Probably not,' he said.) I have in mind Robert Rauschenberg's famous intention 'to act in the gap between' art and life. There isn't any gap. Art is notional. There is always only life and death."

—Peter Schjeldahl, "Performance: Chris Burden
and the Limits of Art," from The New Yorker



Blogger John DM said...

"There isn't any gap. Art is notional. There is always only life and death."

in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, "Sez who?" That's a fanciful analysis at the end that demeans the value of art and thought.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Mike Fats said...

"commemorate the final calling of the bluff of art as a law unto itself."

Yawn... what a waste of energy and dignity. Crapping your pants to announce that he's a cynic? Come on.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

I thought it was a very eloquent way to make a very important point.

I presume you wouldn't think much of Burden's piece called "Shoot," in which he allowed himself to be shot through the arm with a .22 rifle as a piece of performance art, then, hmm?


6:11 PM  
Blogger Reese said...

"I presume you wouldn't think much of Burden's piece called "Shoot," in which he allowed himself to be shot through the arm with a .22 rifle as a piece of performance art, then, hmm?"


6:24 PM  
Blogger John Roberts said...

When our children were babies, they crapped on themselves daily, sometimes hourly. I never saw it as an artistic performance. Still don't.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Burden ceased the project when some one acknowledged his humanity by offering him water.

Art without humanity is nothing, but humanity with art is sublime.

8:30 PM  
Blogger Charlie Didrickson said...

John Roberts said...
When our children were babies, they crapped on themselves daily, sometimes hourly. I never saw it as an artistic performance. Still don't.

8:12 PM


They were children, not men attempting to get back to the time of being a child.

What "balls" it takes to admit your failures and fears as an adult and wanting nothing more than the irresponsibity of a child.

Don't try and compare it to a photograph or painting you enjoy. It's fruitless and pure folly.

8:33 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

I think you may be missing the point. The idea is that when you confront art, you're not insulated, separated, away from it and apart from it, helpless in the confrontation, and hence passive. Real art elicits a RELATIONSHIP, that has an element of "ethical responsibility" to it--you're not just a passive spectator being "presented" with something that you can't effect or influence. The point of the piece was that there was an actual person there, experiencing increasing degrees of distress. At first, it's easy just to see it passively, as something you are not expected to interact with. You're in a museum. You "regard" it and move on. But as time went past it became harder and harder to ignore that there was a person there who was suffering, and finally, someone responded to the ethical dimension of the situation by offering the guy a drink of water. At that point the artist smashed the clock, in order to stop the hands from turning and indicate the amount of time it had taken for someone--anyone--to venture an ethical, interactive response.

Here's a simpler example of more or less the same thing. When I was in art school, I saw a painting in the gallery attached to the school, the Corcoran. It was a large painting of a familiar-looking black girl and a strange looking white man. The painting turned out to be Shirley Temple painted as a black girl and Bill Robinson painted as a white man. The title was "Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White."

Now, that's a joke, right? Are we agreed about that? As soon as I saw the title, I laughed. But I noticed something strange. While I was talking about it to a friend, several people came up to it, peered at it with the utmost seriousness, in that reserved, nonreactive, contemplative mode that museumgoers adopt to view art with, peered at the title, didn't react at all, and moved on.

Just for fun I did a little survey. I sat across the room for a whole evening and counted how many people looked at it and how many people reacted to it, either with a laugh or a smile, or a smirk or a scornful noise or whatever. The end result was that only about one out of every ten people who stopped to look at had any kind of reaction--most just a smirk or a chuckle. The rest took it in blankly, passively.

In the same exhibit there were maybe half a dozen pieces that had a pretty blatant humorous element, and many people weren't responding to them, either. I think the point is just that many people aren't open to art. They're not responding to it, even in simple, direct, very human ways, such as laughing at something that's funny or empathizing with someone in distress (even if it's voluntary). Obviously, it's unfair to expect everyone to be moved by the same pieces, certainly in the same ways; I'm sure some number of people just didn't think the Shirley Temple picture was funny, and presumably some felt that the artist under the glass should hurry up and die and decrease the excess population. But many others just aren't "there with" the art--they're removed, detached, unaffected.

It's funny, I got what Chris Burden was aiming at right away. Like most conceptual art, especially performance art, I wouldn't begin to have the patience to enact or experience it firsthand, but I enjoy reading about it.


8:39 PM  
Blogger jshelly said...

Deja vu, I was just reading an article in the New Yorker about Burden.

8:45 PM  
Blogger Ernest Theisen said...

Well I am so far out of it that I don't think "performance art" is much of anything. Silliness. E

10:25 PM  
Blogger David Emerick said...

Very eloquent defence Mike. The timing of this article was serendipitous as I have been following a bizarre episode recently in the DC art scene. A young artist performed a circumcision upon himself at the DC art fair opening. The problem is that there was no context for the behavior, no rationale or meaning behind the act. It was a stunt for attention. Afterwards the person proclaimed it was a performance piece regarding terrorist acts. Huh? How does self circumcision relate to terrorism?

Something like "Shoot" would come much closer to fitting the bill.

There has been quite a stir over it all.

We can differentiate between self aggrandizing stunts and conceptual performance, just think about the meaning of things before sloffing them off.



8:21 AM  
Blogger Martin B. said...


I didn't understant your post untill you gave us your interpretation of it. If art is a form of communication, then I didn't get the code. too many contradictory symbols at play. Maybe it's was just crosstalk. Performance is simulation, or is it ? Is he really doomed or playing at being doomed. Is his discomfort real or just a performance. Is performance simulation or truth ? Whe don't run away anymore when we see a train coming in station at the movies... Should we ?

Maybe most people didn't catch the meaning of the performance. Maybe because there immune to art or maybe because they don't look at it with the right set of references. Maybe it explains why so much contemporary art seems so hermetic to most people.

Art is a loaded subject and performances like that bring it's definition, or lack of it, into question.

I looove posts like these... Makes my brain hurt...

8:22 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

It's certainly complicated. There's good art and bad, successful attempts to make statements and unsuccessful attempts, issues you do and don't care about, messages we're primed for and those you either think are trivial or that are too subtle or advanced for us.

According to the article, Burden is definitely after publicity, something to set him apart and make him stand out. As David mentioned, sometimes this is merely grandstanding, with no meaning behind it. But I like this piece because it relates closely to a particular aspect of life--our passivity and tendency to not want to get involved, our habitual stance of "who, me?" when uncomfortable ethical issues come up. The concentration camp guard is the classic example, or perhaps the case of the woman who was stabbed to death on a New York street screaming for help when more than 30 people ignored her and did nothing. A lot of our detachment and insulation is self-defensive--surely we can't respond to everything with raw emotion and unmediated directness. But in other cases, events have an ethical dimension that we think were insulated against because of our status as "viewers," observers, passers-by, even in life. In some cases that should probably make us uncomfortable.

I think one thing this piece points out is that many people go to museums and look at art NOT EXPECTING to get it. I got into a lot of hot water years ago for writing a denigrating review of a Paul Strand show. A lot of classicists jumped on me for it. But my defense was that "I have a right to respond to art as if my experience of it is a signficant occasion for me." Some art I don't get, some I don't like, some I just think sucks, but I work at staying open to it. If you don't do that then it just doesn't have much of a chance to be very rich or interesting.


8:51 AM  
Blogger David Emerick said...

“Performance is simulation, or is it ? Is he really doomed or playing at being doomed. Is his discomfort real or just a performance. Is performance simulation or truth ? Whe don't run away anymore when we see a train coming in station at the movies... Should we ?”

He seems to want an either/or status for performance art to fall neatly inside. The feature of performance art that gives it so much potential as a medium is that it allows an admixture of “actual” and “portrayed” or “performative” activities. This is similar to how modern cinema is a more powerful medium than silent films or radio, because it combines the potential power of sound and visual action.

Burden’s gesture is poetic because he situated his real life anguish and suffering in an artificial context of his own creation.


10:37 AM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Why is it not wanting to get involved? It may be nothing more than respecting the wishes of the artist/performer. A person lying under a glass sheet in a museum is obviously no prisoner but is doing something he wants to do. He can get up and walk away at any time. Everyone knows it. So, as an audience member, why should I do anything? My inclination, depending on the cleverness of the display, might be to smirk and think to myself, "this guy is fucking with me." The clever artiste's situation here is not even remotely comparable to that of the woman being stabbed on the street or the concentration-camp inmate, neither of whom (unlike the museum performer) got into his situation voluntarily.

A lot of "performance art" exercises are nothing more than publicity stunts or cheap attempts at emotional manipulation, so it's not realistic to expect audience members to accept them at face value. The performers always want me to accept their conceptual framing of events but don't like it when I use my framing instead. Too bad. If they want to dish it out they should also be able to take it.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Well, I don't want to go too far here defending an artist I don't know and a performance piece I really know very little about, but I would doubt that the artist doesn't want you to apply your framing. In a certain sense he's counting on it. And of course the performer's situation isn't similar to the guard's or the murder victim's--he's just commenting on those things. You might as well say that a Bierstadt painting of a mountain isn't similar to the mountain.

I think if anything about art is true, it's that you're entitled to your own take on it, your own response...but at the same time, that doesn't imply that the artist doesn't have a point to make or that there's no inherent meaning in the piece.


1:40 PM  
Blogger Martin B. said...


"He seems to want an either/or status for performance art to fall neatly inside."

I was trying to express exactly the contrary. I was just stating that the dichotomy between "simulation" and "truth" exists in the perception of the viewer, not that it should be enforced in any way...

English is my second language so maybe I was a bit "maladroit".

3:29 PM  
Blogger Mike Fats said...

"I thought it was a very eloquent way to make a very important point."

Sure Mike, I can see that the spectacle can be rewarding to those who look to "performance art" as a source of ethical brainteasers. Rationalizing, decoding and intellectualizing does not sound like "art" to me, though. As you say, the reason people "aren't there" with this is because the onus is on the viewer to be aware of all the references and contexts (or to make them up) - only when you step outside the work itself does the work make any sense. It's too much of a logical exercise, and an arbitrary one. The performer has nothing valuable to contribute and they mask it by shooting themselves or defecating. This is so far from realizing our creative potential that I'm not sure that it can be called good art.

"Art without humanity is nothing, but humanity with art is sublime."

Well, yes, but isn't humanity in "performance art" a bit contrived? It's sensationalist and fake because it stages some traumatic event.

3:41 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Mike Fats,
One quibble--a symphony concert is "performance art." There's nothing in the definition that says it has be to be fake or traumatic. Or anything else, for that matter.

Did you read the article?


3:46 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Thanks, Mike. I'm sure the creator of such a work has an opinion about what it means. But in such cases I always wonder why, if he has an important point to make, he doesn't make it clearly, using words, rather than leave us to guess. (And if the meaning is important, why is it a good idea for each of us to have his own interpretation of what that meaning is?) I suppose it comes down to one's idea of art, and I confess that I don't see art as having meaning beyond the aesthetic. Speaking of which, I find that the aesthetic value of most non-musical performance art fades much quicker than does the beauty of a nice landscape painting or photo. But to each his own.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Mike Fats said...

"One quibble--a symphony concert is "performance art."

Ah, yes. My intent was to stick to the "conceptual performance art" we had read about: "Shoot" and "Doomed."

The two cases were certainly traumatic: "Inevitably, he soiled his pants." Or maybe the performer's just the type that doesn't mind. The thought of receiving a gunshot wound makes me cringe. I bet that's a traumatic experience.

"Fake", or contrived, because they were voluntary and scripted, as in "setting oneself up."

4:47 PM  
Blogger CH said...

I think this piece of art (if you grant it that status) has some similarities both in its conception and its moral dimensions as the movie 'Borat'. In both, a performer is setting up a contrived and fanciful situation between the artist and the unsuspecting 'observer'. We, the secondary observers of this interaction, are then inclined to pass some moral or ethical judgement on the behavior of the primary observers. Once you start chasing your tail with this though, it becomes clear that our reaction as secondary observers is also subect to the same ethical and moral oversight. What I would like to see discussed is the ethical reponsibility of the artist in putting people into situations that he is perfectly aware may not show them in a kind way. We do not allow (at least in theory) law enforcement officials to entice and entrap people into committing crimes. And that is why I think it is very important to resist falling into a dismissive and snooty attitude toward the people who are in effect being manipulated by the artist for reasons of his own. After all, by his own admission, the artist is doing this for less than pure altruisic reasons. Is it ethical to involuntarily recruit people in your own artistic schemes? I for one would be sort of pissed to be viewed as some sort of helpless pawn in someone else's cheap party trick.

8:47 AM  

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