Burden ★★★½

Everyone has their moment when they choke on contemporary art. For me, it was a couple decades ago when someone told me about the dude who crucified himself on a VW bug. It disturbed me, it made me viscerally angry, it made me think that anything this Chris Burden fellow was associated with was a waste of time. (Hearing about another piece where he had himself shot in the arm, or a third where he locked himself in the locker, did nothing to impress me further.)

This attitude ever-so-slightly softened over the years, as I became somewhat more acquainted with other strands of contemporary performance art, but the thing that made me think that I needed to reconsider Burden was seeing his Metropolis piece at LACMA. Apart from cars - at best a tenuous link - I couldn't see any connection between the person who made this heaving, detailed masterful sculpture and the guy who had crucified himself, had himself shot in the arm, et cetera.

I'm not sure how closer I am after having seen BURDEN. One person near the end insists that if you lay Burden's work end-to-end you can clearly see the link from one piece to the next, but this film mucks with chronology enough to render that impossible. It doesn't help matters that the latter-day Burden isn't really interested in talking about his performance work, and so much of the exposition on that work comes from footage of a younger Burden.

Those caveats out of the way, this film gave me a much greater appreciation of Burden, and the sense of his work coming out of sculpture rather than performance. (In general, I feel like the film overstates some of the revolutionary nature of his work; I'm hardly an expert on performance art, but I do know that Ono's Cut Piece was substantially prior to Burden.) The astonishingly meteoric rise of Burden and his prolific output through that time seems conjoined with a glancingly-described but unhappy childhood, a savagely complex intelligence, and emotional processing that doesn't mirror other people.

If there's a throughline that I found through Burden's work by watching this film, it's energy. Burden speaks often of charged situations - whether it's confessing his infidelity, lying on the floor next to buckets with water that have electricity flowing into them, his penchant for firearms, the Big Wheel, Metropolis, or his beloved LA landmark Urban Light, they pulse with energy. The arc of Burden's life can be seen as moving from a place of expressing that violently to expressing that peacefully, and with it, his arc of happiness seemed to follow. In an early television interview, he clearly states that his artwork doesn't make him happy. But a posthumous memory from a colleague describing his reaction to his final work makes it clear: he got there.

The irony of Burden's name hangs heavily over the film, for despite his artistic progression his early work never ceased to define him for most people. Marina Abramovic even laments that he didn't continue in performance art. But where could he go? Instead of running an idea into the ground, he moved forward. And if we're still coming to terms with his old work now, how long will it be before we fully digest his later work? I'm not sure, but for anyone who struggles with Burden as I have, the film BURDEN acts as cinematic saliva, making Burden's work ever so slightly more digestible.