03 November 2011


A few strangling thoughts about the previous...

[ 1. ] I'm not altogether certain about how to sum up my thoughts about the work of Chris Burden. It's a varied body of work he's done over the years -- in terms of themes, but especially in terms of quality. Despite the stronger work (a fair amount of which falls within the first decade of his career), there's also been a high ratio of misfires or under-realized pieces, as well as a good number of works that were just plain weak. In fact, there's e enough of the latter to make me sometimes wonder if the early great pieces were -- in each instance -- just some sort of fluke.

As far as those strong early works are concerned: If anything, I mostly focused on works that I always felt had a strong social dimension -- "topical," as some have labeled them. Despite some critics having argued to the contrary, I think it's quite clear that Burden was feeding off of the world around him, being prompted by the cultural climate of the time.

[ 2. ] And it's that matter of topicality that gave the work some traction back then. In some ways, some of his more famously daring or severe pieces (Shoot, of course, and Trans-fixed) still have the same sensationalist reputation these days as they did back then. He was -- at times, and ironically -- perfect tabloid fodder. With people freaking out and getting anxious about the direction the country was heading at the time, they tended to look to the news for things that validated that perception -- "confirmational bias" being some a common impulse. Since, y'know, as the media has known for a long, long time: You'll never go broke pandering to people's prejudices, phobias, etc.. Far from it.

[ 3. ] Another reason for the canonical status is that a number of Burden's works have a remarkable degree of metaphorical resonance. One piece I didn't address in the post was Velvet Water, which Burden did in 1974. The work consisted of him repeatedly dunking his head in a sink filled with water, doing so again and again until he finally collapsed on the floor sputtering and gasping for breath. The entire time, there was a camera fixed on him, relaying a live video feed of the action to an attended audience which sat in adjoining space. At the start of the piece, Burden addressed the cameras, telling the audience: "Today I am going to breathe water, which is the opposite of drowning, because when you breathe water, you believe water to be a richer, thicker oxygen capable of sustaining life."

The audience, meanwhile, was aware that Burden was carrying out this action on the other side of a partition; because they were reputedly still within earshot of the artist's splashing and choking. It's another one of those works where the audience is put in a complicated situation -- in which their passivity and spectatorship becomes (in theory) problematic by way of their culpability in watching someone endanger himself. The whole bit about being party or witness to someone else's delusional undertakings -- it's a scenario that's bound to translate any number of ways. Like say if you ever knew anyone who joined a cult or got involved in some get-rich-quick scheme. Personally, the whole delusional/"transformational thinking" angle reminds me very much of something we all witnessed just this past decade.

[ 4. ] The Delillo bit's a little odd, innit. I suppose I'll always associate Delillo's Mao II with airline hijacks if only because of Johan Grimonprez's DIAL H-I-S-T-O-R-Y; which, when I saw it nearly 15 years ago, reminded me of a replay of my early childhood -- an endless montage of footage from various airports playing out the evening news night after night.

But what gets me is the sentiment expressed about the craft of writing, of being a novelist. Such a quaintly Romantic notion (it seems) to find still circulating in this day and age, with the cultural landscape having been transformed so completely my a variety of electronic media. But you still see that from time to time, the whole business about some writers regarding themselves or what they do as something akin to the "shaping of reality." Odder still, since -- chronologically speaking -- full-fledged po-mo irony emerged in the literary realm some years before it became common in the visual arts. But I think visual artists disabused themselves of thinking in any similar terms -- about seeking after or expressing any sort of cap-t Truth -- somewhere about the time that Clement Greenberg slagged off Jackson Pollock because of the latter's post-"drip" return to figuration.

[ 5. ] Ralph and Wayne each posted some interesting comments on Part 1 of the piece. Still, I've never been terribly convinced by the reading that attributed something akin to a "will to power" to the works. Assessments of that sort always struck me as a bit too much of a surface reading, a little too reductive (and in a way, little more than a cousin far-removed from more sensationalistic/tabloid-ish accounts). While the work frequently does often have to with power and social dynamics and such, I believe its far trickier and more slippery than that -- not so easily or squarely nailed down. Which is probably why I find it intriguing.

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