Year: 2017
Director(s): Richard Dewey, Timothy Marrinan
Writer(s): Richard Dewey, Timothy Marrinan
Region of Origin: US

Rating: Unrated
Color, 90 mins

Synopsis: A probing portrait of Chris Burden, an artist who took creative expression to the limits and risked his life in the name of art. (Source)

Provocateur, masochist, iconoclast, martyr, the Evel Knievel of the art world. All titles which seem far too binary for what artist Chris Burden really was. Over the course of his lifelong career, the forward thinker rejected many of his critics’ attempts to label what he did, but what remains certain, is that his legacy speaks for itself. Burden, assembled by Richard Dewey and Timothy Marrinan, is a powerful tribute to one of our finest modern artists, someone who continually challenged himself and those around him by pushing the boundaries of performance art, sculpture and more, through a mixture of self-destruction and thought-provoking spectacle. Culling tons of footage from past pieces, colleagues and friends, this documentary paints the picture of a man constantly in search of a pure idea, someone who’s art became inextricable with his life, and who continued to transform until his very breath.

Beginning with an irreverent television ad which puts Burden’s name alongside the likes of Picasso, Van Gough, Da Vinci and more, Dewey and Marrinan frame the trajectory of Burden’s career as they follow him for the final year of his life, finishing what would become his last pieces in a Topanga Canyon studio. We get to hear and see Burden take us through his initial moments of awakening, going from frustrated architect, to cheeky art student and beyond. It’s fascinating to follow his story, as the art community relegates him to an irreverent jester, even while gaining a cult following, putting his life on the line for each performance. The film ultimately charts Burden’s ascendancy into pop culture consciousness, embraced by pioneers such as Bowie and and Frank Gehry, and looked upon as a modern maverick. It all leads to a permanent installation at the Los Angeles Art Museum (Urban Light), which is now as recognizable as our city’s towering Hollywood sign. Highlighted throughout, is Burden’s thirst and drive to better his art, evoking our primal need to never settle for less and never stop asking questions, even if the answers aren’t as important as the journey.

Dewey and Marrinan fit in quite a bit within the film’s lean runtime, delivering Burden’s story through a mix of shocking spectacle, sincere self reflection and electric energy. Whether you’re a longtime fan looking to reminisce, or someone new to the pioneer’s work, the film seems to cover all the bases, with first hand accounts of his most famous performances, including the time he infamously got himself shot in the arm, crucified himself on a car, hijacked a live television broadcast at knifepoint, and later, his more traditional sculpting period, featuring massive installations which required intricate technical precision and repurposed materials. Burden’s work speaks for itself, but directors Dewey and Marrinan clearly have a love for their subject, really diving deep into the man and the sincere passions that drove him to a singular plateau of experimentation and innovation.

Burden will surely be the trigger for an immense number of conversations, but if there’s a single through line that stitches it all together, it’s that art should never be comfortable or easily classifiable, that it has to force those around it to be active, and that it has to make an impact, whether painful or indirectly, or else what’s the point? As it is, getting to see Burden through this documentary is a sobering experience, an incendiary tribute to an artist not afraid (sometimes literally) to play with fire.