In his 2007 New Yorker essay on performance artist Chris Burden, the critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote that most of Burden’s oeuvre consisted of “powerful works that deal ingeniously with aesthetics and ethics of power.”
Schjeldhal added that “you needn’t like them to be impressed,” and then described some of Burden’s more infamous pieces:
He spent five days in a small locker, with a bottle of water above and a bottle for urine below; slithered, nearly naked and with his hands held behind him, across fifty feet of broken glass in a parking lot; had his hands nailed to the roof of a Volkswagen; was kicked down a flight of stairs; and, on different occasions, incurred apparent risks of burning, drowning, and electrocution.
Burden’s more recent “Metropolis II,” which might seem tame by comparison, features over 1,100 minicars careening through a maze of interconnected freeways. It’s still pretty challenging, even in diluted video form: The noise and constant motion seem calculated to wreck your nerves, and according to this brief segment on the piece, at least one car spins off the tracks every hour. The city may be surreal, but the stress feels as familiar as your last bad rush hour.
Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco-based arts and culture writer. Her work has appeared in Salon, LA Weekly, Mother Jones, and many other publications. You can follow her on twitter at @sheerly.