Film

Conceptual Artist Chris Burden Proves Too Tricky a Subject for a Doc That’s Not Itself Conceptual

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No artist literalized his surname more than Chris Burden (1946–2015), the Conceptual brinksman who subjected his flesh to spectacular strain in the 1970s, most infamously in Shoot (1971), in which a pal took aim at him, from 15 feet away, with a .22 rifle. In Burden, Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey’s densely packed but occasionally facile documentary, the footage of that performance — first presented as a cliffhanger before the friend pulls the trigger, later shown more fully, and finally run backward — is tricked out unnecessarily. Shoot is one of several Burden works discussed here (often hurriedly), events in extremis that beguile with their titles alone, such as Trans-Fixed (1974), in which he lay supine on the back of a VW Beetle, his hands nailed, Christ-like, to the car’s roof.

The tally of talking heads assembled here borders on the supernumerary: I’m still not quite sure why we need to hear from Burden collector John McEnroe or why antediluvian British art critic Brian Sewell is given so much time to natter on about the lack of “integrity” in the art world. (Conversely, I wonder why we hear so little from the New Yorker‘s Peter Schjeldahl, who, in his superb appreciation published on the magazine’s website after the artist’s death, wrote: “Burden adventured alone in wilds that aren’t outside civilized life but that seethe within it. He coolly structured convulsive experience.”) Burden’s change of medium — from his own imperiled body to sculptural works such as Urban Light (2008), the tourist-beloved assemblage of 202 restored street lamps outside LACMA — goes underexplored. The man himself, though, is excellent company, whether thoughtfully answering Regis Philbin’s disingenuous questions during a 1974 talk show or on a constitutional with his dogs near his home in Topanga Canyon the year before he died, slightly creaky but unbowed.

Burden

Directed by Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey

Magnolia Pictures

Opens May 5, Metrograph

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