Few artists pushed the boundaries of what can be considered art further than Chris Burden. In the ‘70s, he gained notoriety for his wild pieces of performance art that placed his body on the line for the sake of his performance. Later in life, though, Burden would turn his back on the self-destructive pieces of performance art in favor extravagant and intricate sculptures and installations. If you’ve been the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), you have seen one of Burden’s installations in the form of over 200 vintage lamp posts in front of the museum, an installation called Urban Light. Now the life and art of Chris Burden are the subject of a new documentary simply titled Burden, directed by Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey.
“We were aware of Chris Burden’s early performance works to a certain extent, which were often sort of dangerous or putting himself in sort of uncomfortable or precarious situations and we were both living in Los Angeles at the time and this was around the time Urban Light was going up at LACMA, which is a public sculpture made up of restored LA street lamps which has become kind of a civic monument here in Los Angeles and really embraced by the public,” said Timothy Marrinan about brining Burden’s life to the screen.
“We were initially intrigued by how seemingly different those things were and the big journey that Chris went on through his career and his life as an artist. I think the more that we researched him and his art we thought it was one of the great untold story in art,” he continued. “A lot of people are not that familiar with Chris and his sort trajectory as an artist. Maybe they’ve seen the lamps but didn’t know who had made them or had heard a little bit about someone who shot themselves in the ‘70s but hadn’t necessarily connected the dots that it’s the same person. So we were interested to just explore that journey and tell his story on film, and really drawn to the fact that he made art that was, you know, really provokes a response out of people and draws upon big issues and really shows complete commitment to his art-making, whether it’s putting his body on the line in early work or embarking on these massive large scale projects that would take years to come about later in his career.”
Burden features plenty of archival footage of Burden’s outlandish pieces that are daring, shocking, grotesque, and often quite dangerous. And yet for all the shocking aspects of his work, the filmmakers assured me that there was nothing they deemed too shocking for their film.
“We heard rumors of stuff, but no,” Richard Dewey said when asked about leaving out any shocking material. “People said that there were probably crazy films and things that got lost but we don’t have anything specific.”
“There’s plenty in the film that is pretty of out there. That is there and documented and he really pushed the line in the early days and it’s there in the archival material,” Marrinan added. “We didn’t pull punches in that way. He did a lot over his 40-year career, so we had to make choices about what we could and couldn’t sort of fit into the film. We couldn’t put every piece in there and document it from start to finish. There’s certainly other pieces out there to explore, but I think we put a fair share of the crazy stuff in there.”
The arc of Chris Burden’s career is truly a unique one, with the artist diverging from his shocking and antagonistic pieces into much more traditional yet still groundbreaking works of art. That may have been a result of Burden’s earlier works being intertwined with his personal life, leaving him in personal and professional turmoil at a certain point.
“There was a really blurred line between his private life and his art. They basically fed into each other in a really interesting way and at times in a self-destructive way for his personal relationships and his mental health at the time,” Marrinan said. “As he got older and his career progressed that was definitely a change in his work. His private life and his work became more separate. Obviously, the art was still coming from him and his ideas. It was a reflection of him but he wasn’t physically present in the same way. To hear him say that people come along to see Urban Lights and they have no idea who made it and that he really kind of enjoys because it has its own sort of existence separate from him and will now go on and live on beyond him, I think, is a really interesting difference in which his approach to art changed over the course of his career.”
Structurally, Burden very much mirrors the career of its subject, straying away from personal details once they’ve left the work of Chris Burden. “It felt like that was the right to do, to mirror his career, and also that’s just what made sense when you had these big sculptures there’s more discussion of the X’s and O’s in the process of making over it a long period of time, and he wasn’t doing crazy things in his personal life,” Dewey said of the film’s structure. “It was sort of a conscious decision and also sort of a function of the material that we had to work. That was the natural way to tell the story.”
“The starting point for the film really was his artwork and it does touch upon his private life and his motivations and inspirations and all that stuff, but it mostly does that at the point where it intersects with his art,” Marrinan added. “There was a time where he was doing pretty provocative things in his life which were then just directly documented and became works of art in themselves. We were interested in those points where the two collided. That didn’t happen so much in his later works.”
Burden isn’t simply archival footage and talking heads, Marrinan and Dewey spent a lot of time with Chris Burden while making the movie. “Over the course in making this film we shot for about four years. We spent time with him at his studio while he was working interviewing him. We spent time when he traveled to different museums for exhibitions talking to him,” Dewey said of their time with Chris Burden. “And we also spent week with him in Antwerp following him for a short film and also interviewed him for a magazine. Over the course of that whole time we spent quite a bit of time with him asking him questions, following him around the studio, watching him work.”
Unfortunately, Chris Burden fell ill with a form of cancer during filming and passed away in 2015 just as he was completing his final project Ode to Santos Dumont. “We started the film project long before he came ill, so it was a totally unexpected thing that came about during the making of the film. Quite late in the film in our process of shooting the film,” Marrinan said of Burden’s sudden illness. “We were aware that he was dealing with health issues. Initially we didn’t know the extent of those and that certainly became clear a little bit as time went on and his prognosis with his cancer became worse. It was all quite fast towards the end, from the point he got the not-so-positive prognosis about his illness it was actually only a few months later that he passed away. It was actually quite quick in the end.”
How does the death of a documentary subject while filming change the finished film? “It certainly changed the film structurally to a certain extent,” Marrinan said. “Obviously, it was a completely unexpected and shocking thing to come about. We had to rethink aspect of the film and how we would proceed from there. Our time with Chris was cut a little bit short and obviously it changed the ending to the film, which we incorporated in there as best we could. I think it ultimately made us more determined just to kind of really do justice to his life and his work. He had a wild and interesting life and had done some fascinating within art, not that we felt we had to pull any punches or be more deferential to him because of his passing. I don’t think Chris is the kind of person who would’ve wanted that. I think he was a pretty genuine person. We just wanted to represent his life and work in the right way on film and let people experience that and form their own conclusion on it.”
Burden is currently playing in select theaters and is available on most VOD platforms.