High Times Greats: Chris Burden

Chris Burden: The recycled crucifixion of the conceptual Christ.
High Times Greats: Chris Burden
Bed Piece in BURDEN, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: © Barbara Smith.

For the March, 1978 issue of High Times, Harry Wasserman profiled the provocative artist Chris Burden (1946—2015). In honor of Chris Burden’s birthday April 11, we’re republishing the story below.

Chris Burden: March 1978

“Other people fantasize the same images I do, they just don’t act them out,” says Los Angeles conceptual artist Chris Burden, who has had himself shot in the arm, kicked down two flights of concrete stairs, crucified atop a Volkswagen (“the trick was to use small nails”) and has risked death by fire, drowning, starvation and electrocution—all for the sake of his art.

“I’m not suicidal,” insists Chris Burden. “I’m not into pain at all, I’m scared shitless. I have no interest in dying for my art, because I want to keep on making it. After I did one of those ordeal performances I’d feel like Superman. Because I just did something, not that people couldn’t do, but they wouldn’t do. The reason I did those things was to test the difference between fantasy and reality, in a very controlled and defined way. If you wanna change the world, do it, don’t just sit around moaning and whining and then, when you’re 60 years old, wish that you had done it.”

Chris Burden at 31 is a West Coast beachside bohemian who majored in art at Pomona College and later went to graduate school at U.C. in Irvine, where he became his first piece of conceptual art, shutting himself in a 2-by-2-by-3-foot student art locker for five days. “I was in a locker on the bottom floor, and the dean of the Fine Arts Department was on the fifth floor, only 100 feet above me, and it took him four days to find out about it.”

The art that Chris Burden has performed in the last few years has been less violent. In December 1976 his friends and enemies received Xmas cards containing crisp $10 bills (“Money is good only for wiping your ass and snorting cocaine,” says Burden. “You go to Mars and give them a $10 bill and they’ll laugh in your face”). Last year he built a “B (for bicycle) -car” with a motorcycle engine and bicycle wheels that cost only $4,000 and then drove it himself from Amsterdam to a gallery in Paris.

His latest piece is a working replica of the first television set, invented in 1915 by Scotsman John L. Baird, who transmitted a picture the size of a postage stamp from one room of his house to another.

“People are having trouble understanding my art lately,” says Burden. “‘That man who shot himself, why is he building cars now?’ I was dealing with violent imagery in a scientific way. When you have your friend shoot you in the arm, it’s almost like a lab experiment. What’s it gonna feel like? Now I’m doing the same thing with technology. If I’m on a desert island, man, I can build a TV, I can build a car, so you guys better elect me president or I’ll just stay up on a hill and not come down.”

“I built the car and TV from scratch. Fuck you, RCA. Fuck you. Detroit. It gives me the personal satisfaction that I know how a car works—I had to make one. Technology is getting so complex that everybody’s afraid they’ll lose control of it, in a sense that very few people understand how it works and no one person understands how everything works.”

Chris Burden took Andy Warhol’s concept that media images had become mythic icons one step further when his Volkswagen “screamed for me.” But Valerie Solanas shot Warhol by surprise, while Chris Burden had himself shot to show that violence has become just as accepted an image of American life as are Warhol’s subjects.

“Everybody watches it on TV every day,” Burden has commented about violence. “America is the big shoot-out country. About 50 percent of American folklore is about people getting shot. The violence in our culture isn’t always out front, but it’s there. That’s what was so exciting about the Sixties, all those big rock festivals and riots in Berkeley. When that was on TV, you watched it.”

Chris Burden’s ultimate comment on the repression of the American counterculture was the piece he called “I Became a Secret Hippie,” which he performed in October 1971 at a gallery in San Francisco. He took off all his clothes, which consisted of jeans and a T-shirt, lay on the floor on his back, had a friend hammer a star-shaped stud into his chest, sat in a chair, had his hair shorn to a crewcut and dressed in a suit and tie. An equally political statement was made when Burden had himself kicked down two flights of concrete stairs at Switzerland’s Basel Art Fair to protest the commercialism of the fair, which he believed had “kicked artists out.”

“My identity came from the quest of creating,” says Burden. “I’m not about painting, which is an illusion of something. I think the world is bigger than that now, that art has got to be ideas. Galleries are only equipped to shuffle paintings around in little crates. Paintings no longer affect culture, while I think my performance art does. I have more power than my gross earnings would tend to indicate.”

Burden is the first artist to have made a full financial disclosure, which he did recently in print and on New York television, “in keeping with the bicentennial spirit, the post-Watergate mood and the new atmosphere on Capitol Hill.”

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