In Los Angeles—the city where he lived much of his life until his death in 2015 at the age of 69—Chris Burden is closely identified with Urban Light, a majestic collection of light poles displayed outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that’s quickly becoming one of the metropolis’s most photographed locations. Many who visit Urban Light for selfies, engagement photos or a place to wow out-of-town guests have little idea that, just a few decades ago, Burden was among modern art’s most combative practitioners, eliciting visceral responses from violent avant-garde projects which featured, say, having a friend shoot him in the arm at close range.
How Burden went from provocateur to beloved cultural institution is one of the compelling threads in a new documentary that goes beyond greatest-hits regurgitation, seeking an emotional through-line for a remarkable life. Burden doesn’t reach the heights of definitive artist portraits like Crumb, but it’s frequently inquisitive and nuanced, showing us where the man faltered even when the work captivated.
Making their feature-length debut, directors Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey do a superb job of suggesting what drove Burden to craft such combative works without trying to psychoanalyze the man. Born in a family that encouraged his misanthropic worldview, Burden had a mischievous perspective from an early age, one he started cultivating at the University of California, Irvine, where he devised an art installation involving stuffing himself in his locker. A precursor of sorts to extreme street magicians like David Blaine, he came up at a time—the late 1960s—when art was being commodified, established masters’ work suddenly selling for millions in elite auction houses. Burden and others rebelled against that genteel appreciation of art, striving to make experiential pieces that couldn’t be confined to an easel.
Marrinan and Dewey show us Burden’s projects, often with commentary from those who were there when they were made, but the film isn’t rigidly chronological. Burden is more interested in thematic connections, revealing how the artist collaborated with his first wife Barbara or tracking his longtime fascination with pieces that centered on physical pain or destruction. As a result, this is one of those rare documentaries about a creative type that’s more of an emotional snapshot than a bookish biography.
Of course, such a strategy carries its own risks. Try to mimic your subject’s adventurousness in your filmmaking approach, and there’s a decent chance your documentary will come across as forced or tiresome. Instead, Burden is relatively low-key, recognizing that Burden’s shocking art was so striking because of its simplicity, and a large part of the film’s effectiveness comes from the resilient appeal of that work. Whether nailing his hands to the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle like a modern-day Jesus or pretending to be dead by covering himself in a sheet at what appeared to be a crime scene, Burden wanted to get a rise out of the viewer, believing that we shouldn’t be observing art in some detached, impassive way as if we were in a museum.
More than mere performance-art pranks, Burden’s installations have a consistent sense of danger and inventiveness—you laugh at how clever they are but still recoil at their potential repercussions. And the homemade recording of these pieces adds to their bizarre immediacy: Looking at them with modern eyes, they seem beamed in not just from another time but another world. The film’s use of 1970s New York rock such as Television’s Marquee Moon only adds to Burden’s punk-like aggression—at least in his pieces. The archival interviews find him to be a withdrawn, odd but amiable fellow, which makes his troubling art all the more mysterious and upsetting.
There’s clear admiration for the artist in Burden, but it’s not a hagiography. Along with interviewing admirers like Ed Ruscha, Marina Abramovic and Frank Gehry, the filmmakers talk to those who ran afoul of him—either because they were romantically involved with the guy or disagreed with his methods. Meaningfully, the documentary also leaves room for an art critic, the London Evening Standard’s Brian Sewell, who went to his grave unmoved by Burden’s work, labeling it “rubbish” and declaring it had “nothing to do with art.” Sewell’s commentary is a worthwhile (if not completely compelling) argument about this anything-goes style of postmodernism that rejected the classic definition of art, the movement flirting with self-indulgence and willful chaos in the process.
Marrinan and Dewey spent some time interviewing Burden in his later years as he lived in happy seclusion in the hills just north of Los Angeles. Without trying to explain why, the movie presents us with a Burden who softened with age—the indecipherable half-smile still evident, though. His recent installations, including 2008’s Urban Light, don’t provoke, but they’re equally engrossing, Burden as per norm encouraging the observer to feel connected to what he sees. That the same man could have made such different pieces is a riddle Burden has the good sense not to entangle. Better, as always, to let the work speak for itself.
Directors: Timothy Marrinan & Richard Dewey
Release Date: May 5, 2017 (New York); May 12, 2017 (Los Angeles)
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and Vice President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.