Monday, May 11, 2015

Rock and Roll Eulogies: Chris Burden

What do the rest of us do when the man who cannot die slips quietly away in Topanga Canyon? Chris Burden is the first person I've eulogized here who did not make music. Still, I insist, he was a rock and roll artist. 

Burden, more than any other artist of his generation (or any generation since), pitted mind against body, not in attempt to declare one the winner, but to put each in doubt. The mind-body dialectic of Burden's work plays itself out - not in Burden's flesh, as one might be tempted to conclude - but in the thoroughgoing submission of mind to body and of body to mind. In the end each disappears, only to reappear as a composite entity we must call a "situation." It is not, in the end, the flesh of Burdens palms or the will of his mind that is tested in Transfixed (1974), but the assignments meted out by the specificities of the situation to his assistants, to the Volkswagen Beetle onto which he was nailed, to the garage and the alley where it all took place. But more directly, more crucially, the situation of Transfixed, like all of Burden's indispensable work of the 1970s, assigns to us, the audience, a host of tasks and obligations. We must bear witness, even if we weren't there (and for most of his pieces, most of us weren't). We must testify. We must assume the moral implications of his choices even if he cannot, will not, or refuses their validity. He had to be called "Burden." This is what his crucial work was about: the burden of being alive, of being responsible for and to the mind and body within which we've landed. As Richard Hell so succinctly put it, "it's such a gamble when you get a face." But that gamble, everything that rides on it and how it plays out, is for each of us, our particular burden. Dying too.

Chris Burden's burden was to unburden by burdening. I know that sounds like a jargony way of evading an actual claim. But it's not. Before there was "the virtual," before avatars and screen names, Burden stood in our stead. He tested the limits of what we - each of us individually, and all of us collectively - were willing to accept: as art, as moral behavior, as agency in the context of situations in which we unwittingly put or found ourselves. In the 1970s, while the murder of Kitty Genovese still haunted our individual consciences, and Vietnam disabused us of the inviolability of our moral positions, and Nixon's betrayals lacerated the constitution of the body politic, Chris Burden substituted his conscience, his morality, and his body for ours and allowed us to play out and play through our direst disquiet. I don't believe that art heals. But I do believe that art can productively trouble us, exposing us to the virus that, in larger, less inoculated circumstances, might kill us.  This exposure, of course, cannot save us. And yet somehow, I thought that by exposing himself so radically on our behalf, Chris Burden had become immune to that stupid, stupid thing called dying. 

Today, though, he died. His work didn't kill him, as once we thought it might. He just died like everybody does. I thank him for once again demonstrating how stupid it really is to be alive and to die just like everybody else. But more emphatically, I thank him for demonstrating how much stupider it is to think that it isn't so stupid.