Chris Burden: The Artist Who Shot Himself

On the 11th of April 1946, the American performance artist Chris Burden was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the US. “ Among other things, Burden has been described as a masochist; an avant-garde novitiate; a social therapist; an existential populist; a hero; the alter ego of the biblical Samson; a helpless, passive victim; a heroic victim; an anthropologist; someone inclined toward the scientist, engineer, inventor, tinkerer; a victim-by-request; the hero of an impossible quest (a modern Don Quixote); a voluntary scapegoat; and a survivalist.” (Frazer Ward, Watching “Shoot”, October, Vol. 95, Winter, 2001).

41Ma96g8ZoLSo, what has he done to earn all of these epithets? Above all, Burden should be noted for the extreme courage in incorporating his own body into the aesthetic experience of suffering. Burden is one of the very few artists bravely transgressing the boundaries, limitations and definitions of art, causing, subsequently, some confusion as to the meaning of art per se. Officially known as “the artist who shot himself”, in 1971, he performed an act of being shot in his left arm by his friend standing five metres away from him. The performance took place in a gallery space to an audience of ten people. Asked to comment on the performance, Burden simply said: “At 7:45 p.m. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket 22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me.” (Chris Burden, “Chris Burden: Original Texts 1971-1995”).This commentary sounds awfully cold and emotionless, one could say almost journalistic, revealing probably the artist’s motives behind the performance.  Burden’s premeditated act of shooting himself, devoid of any personal insight into the physical experience of what it feels like to be shot, challenged what was happening in American media at the time. Footage of the Vietnam War, presented to the public in a cold almost mechanical manner, became simply another product of mass consumption incorporated into daily lives of American people. And so, Burden wanted to capture this kind of objectification of suffering. In an interview to the Avalanche magazine (Avalanche 8, Summer/Fall 1973) he sparingly explains his idea behind the performance:        

WS: You didn’t think it was dangerous?  

CB: I knew it was dangerous but I figured it would work out perfectly, the bullet would just nick the side of my arm. It didn’t work out that way, but it wasn’t a bad wound.

WS: So it doesn’t matter much to you whether it’s a nick or it goes through your arm.

CB: No. It’s the idea of being shot to be hit.

WS: Mmmmm. Why is that interesting?

CB: Well, it’s something to experience. How can you know what it feels like to be shot if you don’t get shot? It seems interesting enough to be worth doing it.

WS: Most people don’t want to be shot.

CB: Yeah, but everybody watches it on TV every day.

[… ]

LB: Do you think your work is a criticism of vicarious experience, in a sense?

CB: A criticism of vicarious experience?

LB: Because you were also saying earlier that most people’s knowledge of some extreme conditions is only second hand through the media.

CB: Yes, I think that’s true.   

41+2MSZYFGLThe media coverage that followed his performance turned Burden partially into a madman-masochist, and partially into a hero. The questions that it opened up were concerned with not only the aesthetic qualities of the experience but most of all with its moral and ethical context. “Burden did not shoot himself, he was shot by a friend, and the audience gathered to see it happen. When this is emphasized, different questions emerge. How could someone be persuaded to shoot his friend? Why were audience members prepared to let it happen? Questions like these suggest that what remains compelling in Shoot is not its physical violence, but its violently negative inference of an ideal public realm.” (Ward).Therefore, similarly to Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0:1974, Shoot put the audience in an awkward position as witnesses and simultaneously silent contributors to an act of violence, revealing a truth much more shocking than the performance itself, about the weakness of human psychological and moral condition.