Artist and sculptor Chris Burden died in 2015 at age 69 of melanoma. Many of those who knew him would say that he was lucky to have survived so long. Four decades earlier, Burden had become a cause celebre in the art world for, among other death-defying things, living in a 2-foot school locker for days, rolling around in glass almost naked, having himself shot by a rifle, and being crucified to the hood of a VW Beetle. He was compared at the time to Evel Knievel. His successors include Marina Abramovic, David Blaine, and the merry pranksters of Jackass.
But what’s most surprising in the documentary Burden, directed by Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey, is the balanced and even sweet portrait that emerges of the artist. The film doesn’t skimp on the dangerous qualities of Burden’s work. No doubt he was a provocateur — in the early 1970s, at his scariest, he held a knife to a female interviewer’s throat on live TV and shot a handgun at a passenger jet flying overhead — but his violent exhibitionism is understood within the psychological analysis that emerges. He was an awkward, shy, privileged kid, educated in Switzerland, and his sadomasochism became a way of reconciling himself with the world around him. He just happened to be public about it.
Threaded through the film are interviews with Burden in repose at his sprawling studio in Topanga Canyon, having long walked away from his self-abusive “body art” in favor of vast, gorgeous installation pieces. Those include his beautiful “Ode to Santos Dumont,” an exhibition of a white dirigible which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art one week before his death. And, of course, “Urban Light,” the permanent installation of 202 lamps on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. It is the second most photographed L.A. landmark after the Hollywood sign — and thanks to this engrossing new documentary, passers-by have a chance to understand the crazy, unpredictable life that produced all that light.
Check out the trailer for Burden, above. And click here for the film’s screening schedule at the Tribeca Film Festival.