Chris Burden (R.I.P.) Turns Late-Night TV Commercials Into Conceptual Art

Chris Burden got shot with a rifle, closed up in a locker for five days, made to crawl across fifty feet of broken glass, crucified on a Volkswagen Beetle, and wedged for an extended period under a large piece of non-broken glass. But he did it all voluntarily, surviving these and other threats to life and limb, all undertaken in the name of art, only dying this past Sunday. That concluded a long and astonishingly varied career in which Burden produced work not just of the grim trapped-in-a-box and bullet-in-the-arm variety, but elaborate, even whimsical sculptures, models, and machines that captivate their viewers to this day.

Burden also, between the years of 1973 and 1977 (a period after the shooting and the locker entrapment), worked in the medium of television commercials, producing work that, aired late at night, surely captivated their own viewers (who, given the era, may have already entered their own states of altered consciousness). At the top of the post, you can watch all of them in a row, a program accompanied by textual commentary from Burden himself which details the nature of his self-assigned mission “to break the omnipotent stranglehold of the airwaves that broadcast television held.”

The 2013 video from the Museum of Contemporary Art just above features Burden remembering this daring project of buying and artistically repurposing Los Angeles commercial airtime. But Burden’s interest in television didn’t stop, or indeed start, with these commercials. At East of Borneo, Nick Stillman has an essay putting all the artist’s TV-related work in context. “By situating the television set and by using the commercial form as implicit vessels of authority,” Stillman writes, “Burden’s work about how television influences behavior asked the most penetrating and ethical question of any artist I can think of who used the medium: Do you believe in television?”

Though Burden’s commercials haven’t seen regular broadcast in nearly forty years, his spirit nevertheless enjoys strong prospects of living on through his later work, which reflects and inhabits not the mediated world around us, but the concrete one. In 2011, we featured his Metropolis II, a kinetic sculpture modeling the city of the future in swooping ramps, architecturally fantastical towers, and countless toy cars on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

And if you so much as pass by the museum on Wilshire Boulevard, you’ll see his installation of vintage lampposts known as Urban LightOdds are you’ll also take a picture with it; from what I’ve seen, it has to rank has the most photographed place in the city. “Heat is life,” Burden blankly intoned in his 1975 commercial Poem for L.A. — but light seems to have a pretty fair claim as well.

Related Content:

Metropolis II: Chris Burden’s Amazing, Frenetic Mini-City

Salvador Dalí Goes Commercial: Three Strange Television Ads

Fellini’s Fantastic TV Commercials

Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in CinemaFollow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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