Chris Burden – Shoot, 1971
American sculptor and performance artist, Chris Burden, who was known for his works in the extreme, passed away May 10, 2015. Many of his works were best described as “shocking”, and the radical nature of his work is what set him apart from other twentieth century American artists. His performance pieces were often depictions of violence in which he was always his own victim: he was crucified to a Volkswagen Beetle, had viewers push pins into his body, was kicked down two flights of stairs, and in the case of the piece being discussed, “Shoot” (1971), he was shot.
Burden’s work forces spectators through the shock of the lived imagery not only to review but deeply analyze their own moral selves, the profound nature of misery, and the undeniable reality of pain. In a time when society has become desensitized to the excess of violent imagery through the media, he pushes the audience to recognize the reality of suffering, agony, and desperation.
“Shoot” is 8 seconds of footage, filmed on November 19, 1971 in a gallery located in Santa Ana, California named “F Space.” With only a handful of his friends in attendance, he proceeded with the piece that he had already announced intention of to the editors of an art journal called Avalanche. With the small number of people in attendance he performed what was likely his most shocking of pieces. “Shoot” featured Burden, who was only 25 years old at the time, being shot in the arm at close range by a friend with a rifle. The danger in this piece was obvious, all it took was being off a few inches and Burden could have been killed.
Even Burden wasn’t immune to the shock of being shot in the arm, as he quickly walks off screen. Burden implores viewers to listen to the sound of the empty shell as it collides onto the ground. The imagery of the shot man stumbling forward is one that is difficult to forget.
The bullet was only supposed to graze Burden’s arm, but the shooter was slightly off target. The bullet went through his arm instead of grazing it. Although the film was only eight seconds long, it burns itself into the mind of the audience breaking through desensitization that is felt by most indifferent viewers.
Following the performance Burden and his friends were left to deal with the reality of a gunshot wound to the arm. They went to the hospital and had to explain the performance piece to the hospital staff that was left in disbelief. This part of the story is a reminder of the reality of Burden’s works, the reality of the violent brutality he was representing through the self-inflected violence and resulting injury.
The piece is a reminder of the fundamental reality of our corporeal life, our corporeal reality. Reflecting that if the bullet had only moved a few inches in one direction Burden would have likely been killed and if it had moved a few inches in the other, he wouldn’t have been touched by the bullet. It brings us to the realization that the gun holder had Burden’s life in his hands, just as soldiers in Vietnam held lives in their hands, politicians held the soldiers’ lives in their hands, and so forth.
Burden’s work, so graphic and shocking, was also committed to the re-sensitization of people to the violence that had become less and less shocking due to its constant imagery being invoked in the media while serving to challenge society’s views on what “fine art” truly is.