Watch Chris Burden Get Shot for the Sake of Art (1971)

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.”

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed con­tent:

John Baldessari’s “I Will Not Make Any More Bor­ing Art”: A 1971 Con­cep­tu­al Art Piece/DIY Art Courset

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

Yoko Ono Lets Audi­ence Cut Up Her Clothes in Con­cep­tu­al Art Per­for­mance (Carnegie Hall, 1965)

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 and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (3)
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  • Ian McHugh says:

    The ever-excel­lent BBC Wit­ness pod­cast had this pro­gramme relat­ed to “Shoot!” borad­cast in 2012 & 2104:

    Well worth a lis­ten as it con­tains a full expla­na­tion of the con­text and artis­tic ratio­nale for the piece through an inter­view with Bur­den.

  • theo says:

    To think play­ing jack­ass makes to an artist…simple minds that lack nov­el­ty. How many peo­ple pick up gun and shoot some­one or themselves.…ohhhh art. No toi­let bowl. Bur­den smacks of a sensationalist…not art. Nov­el art bring unique per­spec­tive to the mass­es.

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