Chris Burden passed away on May 10 and here at Open Culture we honored him with a post about his oddly hilarious late night 1970s TV commercials. But before that, Burden entered the public consciousness with one of his ballsiest and insane performance pieces.
“Shoot” (1971) consisted of the 25-year-old Burden being shot in the arm at close range by a friend wielding a rifle. A few inches off, and Burden would have probably died. Instead, as we see in the original piece above, he walks off very quickly, more in shock than pain. His intention was to be grazed by the bullet. It went a little deeper.
As Burden points out in the video, only eight seconds of the brief piece exists. It was filmed, November 19, 1971 in a small gallery in Santa Ana, CA called “F Space,” a few doors down from Burden’s studio, with only a few friends in attendance. He had previously announced his intention to be shot for art to the editors of an avant-garde art journal called Avalanche.
The video and Burden’s commentary on the missing footage is now what constitutes the piece. He urges us to listen for the sound of the empty shell hitting the ground. “In this instant I was a sculpture,” Burden later said. Journalists at the time wondered if Burden would make it to 30. Douglas Davis in Newsweek called him “the Evel Knievel of art.”
Coming at the height of the Vietnam War, the piece is about many things: trust, violence, the limits and risks of art, the role of the audience, the bravery of artists compared to the duty of soldiers. The video is now part of the MoMA and Whitney collections.
The New York Times commissioned this new short doc about the work and tracked down the marksman, one of Burden’s friends, whose identity had remained a secret until now. Fortunately, Burden is also in the video, and gives the last word:
“I think a lot of those performance works were an attempt to control fate or something,” Burden says. “Or giving you the illusion that you can control fate.”
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.