Known throughout his life mostly for his earlier subversive and deliberately provocative work, Chris Burden was one of the most controversial artists of his generation. Using his body as a tool to express himself, the artist pushed the boundaries of decency to the limits and put himself in danger in a series of dangerous stunts, which at the time earned him the nickname of “The Evil Knievel of art”. In the ’70s Burden’s name became synonymous with a new art movement which sought to subvert hundreds of years of classical art tradition by adding elements of danger and unease to the proceedings.
In Burden, directors Richard Dewey and Timothy Marrinan attempt to explore the myth behind the man in one of the most touching accounts about the life and work of an artist who stopped at nothing in his quest for brilliance. Immortalised by David Bowie in his 1977 track Joe the Lion, Burden not only made it his job to shock middle America, but managed to take the art world by storm. Before Burden, nobody had used their bodies in the way he did to express themselves artistically. From getting a fellow artist to shoot him in the arm with a rifle and filming it, to laying face up on a Volkswagen Beetle and having nails hammered into both of his hands, Burden stopped at nothing when it came to making his mark amongst his contemporaries.
With a series of talking heads of Burden at different stages of his career, as well as interviews of those who knew him throughout his life, the film takes its audience into a journey of discovery of a man who in later life became known for some of the most beautiful art installations of our times. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the way the film has been structured is that it allows those who knew nothing about Chris Burden to make their way through his turbulent life. With accusations of sadomasochist tendencies and destructive behaviour, Burden was perhaps not the easiest person to be around in those early days, but as we go through the rest of his story, we start to discover an utterly charming and brilliantly gifted man who lived his life for his art and nothing more.
The film is not afraid of offering different opinions relating to Burden. With thoroughly amusing interview footage of the late art critic Brian Sewell, whose opinions on the man are, shall we say, less than enthusiastic, the film manages to strike a good balance between hero-worship and honest criticism without ever sounding disingenuous. A brilliantly made film, with a genuinely touching ending. A must see.
Burden is released in UK cinemas on May 5th.