Perhaps the greatest compliment you could pay to the filmmakers behind “Burden” is how deceptively straightforward and direct their portrait of the artist provocateur Chris Burden is. Presented as a mostly chronological overview of his career, co-directors Richard Dewey and Timothy Marrinan do not stray from the art, with Burden’s personal life only alluded to in reference to his work and notable names such as Frank Gehry and John McEnroe only appearing when necessary to provide insight, despite the likely temptation to lean on their star power a little more. The film honors the California-based artist not only with its discipline in this regard, but in his notion that the real art is to be found in the reaction, not the work that incites it, and “Burden” is sure to spark a response.
Appearing mellower as he got older – the artist passed away while the film was in post-production last May at the age of 69 – “Burden” flips between the present where Burden has created a palatial workshop for himself in the hills of Topanga Canyon to pass the time tinkering on such large-scale projects as “Urban Light,” the lamps that have since become a Los Angeles landmark in front of the L.A. County Museum of Art, and his combustible past, with live performances in the 1970s such as “Match Piece” where he would flick lit matches at his nude wife or “Trans-fixed,” in which he was nailed to a VW bug to enact a crucifixion. Yet what consistently emerges – and dictates the energetic pace of the film – is a desire to constantly look ahead, with each piece feeling alive in the moment it’s discussed, then moving onto the next, embodying the artist’s aversion to stagnation, except for its habit of revisiting what’s arguably Burden’s most famous work, “Shoot,” in which he got fellow artist Bruce Dunlap to shoot him in the arm while being filmed, a project that came back to haunt Burden when he joined the faculty of the UCLA art department and a student attempted to stage a variation on it.
Often accompanied by well-preserved footage from his work in the ’70s or ’80s or first-hand impressions of his contemporary exhibits, carefully filmed in terms of camera movement to let those in the theater interpret it as if they were seeing it live, “Burden” pulls off the remarkable feat of allowing the audience to come to their conclusions. Dewey and Marrinan, though obviously deeply respectful of their subject, don’t give away their own feelings about the art or the often arduous process of creation, leaving the question of whether the violent means of Burden’s early work justified the end. They also do well to offer contrasting viewpoints on each work, mingling those close to Burden to provide context such as his sister Leslie, his first wife Barbara and former assistant (and future food critic) Jonathan Gold while bringing in an eclectic mix of fellow artists and critics such as Marina Abramovic, Barbara Smith, Ed Moses and The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl to offer analysis.
Dewey and Marrinan’s reach proves impressive, as the observations are always cogent and precise due to the extensive array of voices on hand, while their time spent with Burden, reserved as he may be in his later years and disinterested in recollecting the past, is well-spent, capturing the wheels that are always turning in his head as well as his distinctly different view of the world. “Burden” sees him and his work so clearly that even those who might not understand the enigmatic figure at first will be fascinated, but for those who appreciated his daring, a deeply rewarding portrait awaits.