Chris Burden has, in the name of his art, been shot, nailed to the top of a Volkswagen Beetle and set on fire. He has crawled naked across broken glass, starved for 11 days on a desert island and stuffed himself into a student locker for an entire workweek. Burden, 62, originally trained as a sculptor at the University of California, Irvine, but the realities of his life in the Seventies forced him to exploit the most accessible raw material—himself.
“One of the motivations for doing performances, which is going to sound dumb, is that when I got out of graduate school, I didn’t have any money,” recalls the artist at the Topanga Canyon compound where he works and lives with his wife, artist Nancy Rubins. “I really wanted to keep making art.”
These days Burden shows no ill effects from those earlier physical trials. Since the Eighties, he has mainly created outsize sculptures, and as he talks, a team of studio assistants are busy assembling his latest monumental creation: a 65-foot model skyscraper made with approximately one million stainless steel replicas of Erector set parts, which will be on view in June at New York’s Rockefeller Center with support from the Public Art Fund and developer Tishman Speyer. The tower recalls the fact that Burden wanted to be an architect before becoming an artist, and its title, What My Dad Gave Me, is a tribute to his engineer father.
“What I’m doing with these parts is kind of nuts,” says Burden, noting that A.C. Gilbert, who invented the Erector set in 1911, was inspired by that era’s novel steel architecture. “To me there’s a beautiful circle, in that I’m finally building a building with them.”
Given the dark mystique of his performances, Burden exhibits a surprising amount of gee-whiz enthusiasm in person, whether discussing Erector sets or the miniature train he’d like to build on his property. And unlike some artists, he is happy to talk about past work, including the notorious Shoot. Performed in 1971 during the height of the Vietnam War, the piece could not be simpler or more radical: Burden called a group of friends into a gallery to watch an assistant shoot him with a .22 rifle. “The bullet went into my arm and went out the other side,” recalls Burden, who essentially treated his body as a sculptural material to be reshaped by the bullet’s passage. “It was really disgusting, and there was a smoking hole in my arm.” The extreme act defined Burden’s career but to some seemed inexplicable, if not entirely deranged. The artist counters that the piece, in fact, was carefully rehearsed to minimize the chance of more serious injury. Cheating death was never the intent, he insists. “I was trying to think about a big fear,” says Burden. “Rather than turn from it, I was trying to face it, to eke something out of it, to doodle it out.”