I once went out with a girl who jabbed me in the ribs every time I mouthed the phrase ‘conceptual art’. It hurt, but I got her point.
The C-word, you see, is a tricky one. All too often, it conjures up terrifying images of ‘explanatory’ texts that take 5,000 words to communicate precisely zilch. It implies student politics, gnomic utterances and an unhealthy dependence on the word ‘dialectic’. Too much critical dogma dictates that art must be oblique for its own sake, and utterly devoid of humour.
But it wasn’t always thus. In the 60s and 70s, a lot of the best artists took Marcel Duchamp’s prickly sense of humour as the starting point for their work: think of Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit, Baldessari’s droll plays on language or almost anything by Ian Hamilton Finlay. All were very different artists, riffing on very different jokes, from the scatological to the morbid. But none of them were ever quite as entertaining as Chris Burden.
Burden, who died on Monday aged 69, created some of the most exciting and utterly deranged art I’ve ever seen. His work was by turns shocking, whimsical and deadpan. If there’s one thing to say about him, it’s that he knew how to show as well as tell.
The key thing about Chris Burden was his curiosity. His entire career was anchored around the question ‘what would happen if…?’, a premise that his early performance works probed to the point of masochism. In 1971, he asked an assistant to shoot him in the arm because… well, why not? ‘Getting shot is as American as apple pie’, he offered by way of explanation.
More stunts followed. He was intrigued by the idea that on commercial TV, you could, quite literally, buy time. Between 1973 and 1976, he paid for a series of short films which were then screened during ad breaks. ‘Doing these commercials was a lot better way to spend money than doing drugs’, he said, ‘because you could spend a lot more, and a lot faster’.
Perhaps most famously, he had himself nailed to the bonnet of a VW Beetle. The car was then briefly driven onto the street, with Burden still crucified atop it.
There are only so many scars you can accumulate before a novelty wears thin. Burden had always been fascinated by machinery, from Meccano to belching combustion engines. Inspired by Leonardo’s untested engineering plans, he started trying to realise his own fantasy contraptions, just to see if they’d work. Sometimes, as with his 1999 installation at the Tate, When Robots Rule: The Two-Minute Airplane Factory, the results were less than successful. This ‘factory’ – which was supposed to churn out model airplanes – was a failure, but a bold one: it sat in the Tate’s Duveen gallery, a monument to the question ‘why not?’
Incredibly, though, his crackpot ideas often came up trumps. Consider The Flying Steamroller, a work that more or less did exactly what it promised:
Or Ghost Ship, a remote-controlled boat that Burden guided all the way from the Fair Isle in Scotland to Newcastle-upon-Tyne:
As far as cash allowed, he did exactly as he pleased, regardless of fashion or ideology. He created fantasy machines and caused himself immense physical harm, just for the hell of it. His art was the point where Dada met Boy’s Own.
Burden was, as should be evident, an absolute nutter. Some people are still sniffy about his work, dismissing it as too ‘accessible’ – and accessible it is, in that it is not obscure for obscurity’s sake. To Burden, art was not a prescribed game. If an idea interested him – be it a joke, or a giant cardboard model of the entire US submarine fleet – it was worth making.
If you’re going to pay attention to my art, he seemed to say, then I might as well keep it entertaining. Damn straight: Chris Burden was the best.