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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