Burden is actively engaged in keeping the artist’s memory alive.
First-time documentary filmmakers Richard Dewey and Timothy Marrinan’s Burden is a solid, if unexceptional exploration of the visionary performance artist Chris Burden. It’s beautifully assembled, snazzily visualized and highly appreciative of Burden’s work without feeling like a commercial for the recently deceased artist.
Though it isn’t necessarily surprising, Burden is consistently intriguing. The film starts out by tracing Burden’s formative years, beginning with his graduate school thesis project that found him tying himself into a knot and sitting inside a small locker for five days. Other early work includes an installation involving Burden being strapped to a floor next to buckets of water filled with electric wires, giving passersby the chance to electrocute him if they desired, and his most infamous piece, “Shoot,” which saw him taking a bullet in the name of performance art.
As the film moves forward, Dewey and Marrinan demonstrate how Burden’s work became more intricate and technical as he got older. They often do this by showing footage of Burden himself explaining each piece (he participated in the filming of the documentary up until his death in 2015). Burden points out that he originally wanted to be a sculptor but that, even among artists, sculpting was seen as “suicide.” Perhaps that explains why Burden spent much of his early career making a name for himself through outlandish performance art and, once established, spent much of his later career building crazy, beautiful structures.
Burden tells the story of an artist’s changing tastes and capabilities. And in the tradition of the very best biographical documentaries, much of what is being relayed in Burden feels as if it is being revealed for the first time. Dewey and Marrinan provide a deep look into Burden and his process, but they also acknowledge that he did not have just one “art” and instead was shaped by the situation – place, age, education, finances – he found himself in. However, this doesn’t mean that the filmmakers spend a vast amount of time examining Burden’s personal life. Instead, they focus on the work and as such many of the experts interviewed for the film are colleagues, co-conspirators, classmates or simply fans.
The most disappointing element of Burden isn’t a technical flaw but rather a failure of ambition. Burden is very much a by-the-books documentary; it’s certainly an efficient, entertaining route to follow, but by sticking so closely to the playbook Dewey and Marrinan have failed to live up to Burden’s outrageous spirit. As a subject, Chris Burden should inspire surprise, experimentation and discomfort. Instead, the filmmakers have chosen to honor him in a rather conventional style.
Still, Dewey and Marrinan’s goal appears to be appreciation and the desire to spark curiosity in viewers who may not be familiar with Burden’s story rather than their own individualized, artistic take on the subject. And that goal is certainly accomplished. Many of Burden’s pieces are thoroughly explained and demonstrated, yet still leave the viewer desperate to go searching for them in order to take a deeper, longer look at Burden’s work.
Early in the film, audio is played from Burden’s aforementioned graduate school thesis project. A girl tells Burden, “No one will know you’ve done it after [you get out of the locker]” to which Burden replies, “Oh yes they will.” This film is, even in its weakest moments, an affirmation of Burden’s declaration. He is remembered, but at it’s best, it encourages further exploration of Chris Burden and his work. In that, Burden is actively engaged in keeping the artist’s memory alive.