Critics, historians and fellow artists agree in the documentary Burden that Chris Burden represented a seismic shift in the art world of the 1970s, although they differ on whether that was for better or worse. The divergent views are based on Burden’s early use not of paint, clay, film, metal or found material but of his own body, which he had: stuffed into a 2-foot-by-2-foot-by-2-foot locker for his master’s thesis at UC Irvine (Five Day Locker Piece, 1971); a bullet shot through while in Santa Ana’s F Space Gallery (Shoot, also ’71); electrocuted in his Venice gallery (Doorway to Heaven, ’73); cut up by holding his arms behind his back as he snaked over broken glass wearing only briefs on Main Street in Los Angeles (Through the Night Softly, ’73); and nailed like Jesus to a VW Bug in a Speedway Avenue garage in Venice (Trans-fixed, ’74).
In co-directors Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey’s film that is now available on home video, the talking head representing the traditional art world of the day was the late British critic Brian Sewell, who at one point snorts of a provocative Burden performance, “That’s not art. . . . It’s just a silly thing people go to see.” Burden, who also passed before the documentary was in the can, is shown in the archival footage Marrinan and Dewey meticulously curated displaying real disappointment in being labeled the “Evel Knievel of the art world.” Burden was convinced he made art that reflected a sick society while the motorcycle stuntman was simply a “trickster.”
What is amazing over the course of the engrossing 90-minute documentary is how the view of Burden evolved to the point where another critic, Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times, appears on screen to hail the artist as one of the most beloved and important in the city. This is due to Burden having walked away from performance art in the late 1970s to crank out large art pieces from his cluttered Topanga Canyon studio. His work has been installed and exhibited in galleries and museums all over the world—one major retrospective was at Newport Harbor Art Museum (now Orange County Museum of Art) in 1988—but despite his OC beginnings, we must acknowledge that Chris Burden is a Los Angeles treasure. This is due to late career works such as: Ode to Santos Dumont (2015), a working dirigible that flies in perfect circles to honor the pioneering Brazilian aviator, which was unveiled at a private event five days after Burden’s death and later installed as a tribute at the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA); Metropolis II (2011), a kinetic sculpture that took four years to complete and I’d liken to a Hot Wheels track on steroids, which also took up residence at LACMA; and especially Urban Light (2008), an arrangement of 202 antique street lamps on view outside LACMA, where the installation is powered by the sun to illuminate at dusk. Knight claims this “temple of light” is second only to the Hollywood sign in being the city’s most photographed attraction.
You don’t get a sense in Burden that the artist particularly cared about the adulation he received in either half of his career. He seemed shy and stoic, letting his art do the talking, even while indulging the same media his early work criticized. (Check out the plaid jacket and oversized polka-dot tie a bewildered Regis Philbin rocks during a post-Shoot interview. Talk about performance art.) It is as if Shoot was Burden’s lifelong, well, burden, although Jonathan Gold, the LA Times food critic, pops up to say that while he was the then-professor’s art assistant at UCLA, Burden flirted with shooting Gold in the arm to mark the 10th anniversary of the notorious stunt. “That wasn’t my jam,” Gold reports. I’ll report that Burden is mine.
Burden was directed by Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey. Now available on iTunes, Amazon and Video on Demand.
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If you would have bet me $5 five minutes into Five Steps of Love that I would make it to the end credits, my wallet would still be full. The English-language subtitles fly off the screen way too fast in the Vietnamese rom-com, cornball music and sound effects are grating and, despite matinee idol looks, male lead B Tran’s Huy is a douche. And yet, I could not keep my eyes off the train wreck.
The thin sitcom premise of a story centers on whether young adult couples can truly bond despite astrological signs that dictate they should not be together, although that never plays a part in the steps to winning over a girl that narrator Huy illustrates as movie interstitials. He is a playboy unwittingly two-timing with roommates. His girlfriend Chi (Quynh Chi Nguyen) is a drop-dead gorgeous, shallow career climber who, as a Leo, matches with Huy, or so the stars tell us. But the love-’em-and-leave-’em lug falls harder for mellow Pisces art student My (Jun Vu), who has eyes for someone else.
Check please, right? Well, Five Steps of Love director Ngoc Phuong Vu and co-writer Kimmie Vu peel the onion slowly enough that you simply must see whether Huy is found out. After the magic moment arrives, the filmmakers thankfully resist the urge to wrap things up in a nice bow.
Five Steps of Love was directed by Ngoc Phuong Vu; written by Ngoc Phuong Vu and Kimmie Vu; and stars B Tran, Jun Vu and Quynh Chi Nguyen. Now playing at Regal Garden Grove and Edwards Irvine Spectrum.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.