Chris Burden «747» 1973.
«747» January 5, 1973
Los Angeles, California, at about 8am at a beach near the Los Angeles International Airport, I fired several shots with a pistol at a Boeing 747.
To Love to Hate
When Chris Burden fired a pistol at an airliner taking off from LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) in 1973, he committed an artwork of terrific suggestiveness, one that helped win him a prominent place among his contemporaries. Perhaps most obviously, 747 (fig. 1) evoked the cliche of the hero going to any lengths for his art: the isolated individual doing battle with the world, attacking its materials (canvas, stone, plastered ceiling, even the infinite heavens) with a passion bordering on madness. Simultaneously, and maybe even more strongly - judgments will vary - he recalled the antiheroic image of the poète maudit: the reckless immoralist so devoted to aesthetic sensations, in both senses of the word, that he is heedless of the human consequences of his pursuits. ("Burden's work is terrorism," one critic has said, approvingly.)1 We might be reminded of the surrealist dictum, carried over from the Dada gang, in which the random firing of a gun in a crowd was seen as the exemplary aesthetic act. Then again, we might say that while also referencing these other images, Burden portrayed the artist as an utterly abject figure, a bad boy manquè whose futility does not even rise to the level of Don Quixote tilting at windmills, so vulgar is it and so lacking in authenticity. Or more degrading yet, in this moment we might judge him to have been the artist as anachronism, the artist transformed into a degenerate publicity hound pathetically trying to get with the program of popular culture, as represented most centrally by the movies, which - from "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) through gangster dramas, film noir, John Wayne, James Bond, and the "Lethal Weapon" franchise - offer us as the image of their compelling power the iconic figure of a man shooting a gun. Or in yet another alternative, either outweighing or to some degree interrelated with all these contexts, 747 might be seen as offering us the image of the male artist heroically, diabolically, abjectly, and anachronistically - not to mention hysterically - trying to assert himself at a moment when the feminist movement was dramatically challenging the phallic brush and genius no less than the gun.2 This context in turn would lead us to other contemporary contexts relevant to the appreciation of this artwork, including the state-sanctioned mass murders of the Vietnam War, which were still fresh in people's minds at the time.3
There is yet more to this work, of course. For instance, it might be viewed as a reflection - both homage and send-up - of the muscular gesture in 'action painting' of the 1940s and 1950s. It would then be an act comparable to Robert Rauschenberg’s famous erasure of a drawing by Willem de Kooning. The whiff of wimpiness in Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning (1953)—he obtained the Ab Ex master’s permission before he flourished his eraser—is also in keeping with Burden's behavior in using a handgun rather than some more formidable weaponry of the sort accessible to terrorists and, one must presume, sufficiently motivated artists. Burden has never really been a terrorist, after all, even though he has deserved to be called 'one of America's few really scary artists.'4
Burden's 747 is an art object that existed as such only in a vanishing instant of time now memorialized in its photographic and textual documentation. Consequently, his pistol points out two directions, into performance and the simulacrum, that beleagured 'high' art has taken from the 1960s to the present day. (The emphases in this work on art as a conceptual act, on the human body as integral to the work, and on the personal identity oft he artist indicate three additional directions that have been pursued.) Yet we are also guided elsewhere, further into the past, into the tradition of landscape art and, more specifically, into the aesthetics of the sublime. The Burden of 747 then becomes a latter-day wanderer from the canvases of Caspar David Friedrich, posed against the melancholy horizon, seeking to penetrate its mysteries. The disproportions of scale between the puny human and the transcendental airliner call to mind the Faust legend as it was understood by the Romantics, in which it tells of the danger of overreaching the bounds of one’s nature by desiring to know too much, and also in its more modern, historically specific understanding, in which scientific knowledge and its characteristic product, technology, are the most profound temptations to the human spirit. (If you want an image of Martin Heidegger’s Dasein, Burden gives it to you.) In this regard, however, Burden’s performance still leads us into equivocation: for if his was in some sense an act reaffirming the divide between technology and spirit, science and art, impersonal knowledge and human vitality, and all the other oppositions appertaining to these, it was also an act that solicited our epistemophilia, and in the most basic empirical terms. Is the photo ‘‘real’’?5 (This question becomes all the more pressing if one now thinks of the uncanny reversal of Burden’s work in a hoax that was widely distributed over the internet almost immediately after the September 11th attacks: a photograph of a man on the observation deck of the World Trade Center, oblivious to the plane bearing down upon him.) Did he ‘‘really’’ shoot the gun? Was the plane close enough to him at that moment so that it was within the realm of empirical possibility that he might have hit it and, if he hit it just right— just wrong—forced it to crash? We can learn, if we are so inclined, that Burden was visited by the FBI but dismissed from their consideration, evidently, because he was out of range when he fired his gun.6
9. The gun-toting, body bag getting-into, violent side of left wing, free-spirit, tree-hugging, dolphin-riding, moon minds
I bet YOU thought this entry was going to be about Chris Burden. I love the work of Chris Burden, the above photo (right) of Chris Burden shooting at a Boeing 747, is one of my favorite images of all time. But, I don't feel like writing about him right now. Any artist who placed himself in a body bag and positioned himself in the middle of a busy highway ('Deadman' - 1972) doesn't exactly inspire writing, you know? Performance artists shooting each other in the arm and getting in body bags in the middle of busy streets are like carte blanche for carpe diem... and make me realize that you only live once, so I should really get out more. But I've been everywhere. How about the moon? Can you fire a gun on the moon? Can you? Will it work? What will happen to the fired bullet in low gravity? Speaking of inspirational violence... here and here are some interesting write-ups on artistic suicide. Here's some more thought-provoking performance art. blogger-markallencam.com