Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Ebert on Burden

I’ve been reading around in Roger Ebert’s blog, which is most interesting. Most interesting indeed.

I’ve always thought about him as a movie critic, one I first encountered on TV, where he was teamed up with the late Gene Siskel. For the past several years I’ve used him as a ‘reference’ critic, a critic I’d consult on any movie that interested me. It’s not that I expected Ebert to get it just right, but only that I expected to learn from whatever he said.

As I read around in his blog, I’m learning that there’s more to Roger Ebert than a film critic. Just how much more, I don’t know. Nor, I suspect, does Ebert himself.

I’ve just finished a post on Chris Burden, a very impressive essay indeed. Who, you ask, is Chris Burden? Fair question.

Though I may well have heard of Burden back in the mid-1970s when he was doing his best-known work, I don’t having known about him. As far as I can tell, I first heard about him a few years ago in an informal lecture by Eric Fischl, who was lamenting and protesting the sorry state of contemporary art. Fischl used Burden as a case in point, talking about a ‘piece’ in which Burden had a friend shoot him in the arm with a 22 caliber rifle (Normal Mailer referenced this piece in his superb essay on graffiti).

Which is to say that Burden is / was a performance / conceptual artist (as far as I know, he no longer does such things). And performance / conceptual art never much interested me.

Ebert’s post is about a piece Burden performed in Chicago in 1975. As Ebert says, quoting the news report that he filed at the time:
At 8:20 p.m., the body artist Chris Burden entered a large gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art, did not look at his audience of 400 or more, set a clock for midnight, and lay down on the floor beneath a large sheet of plate glass that was angled against the wall. So commenced on April 11 a deceptively simple piece of conceptual art that would eventually involve the imaginations of thousands of Chicagoans who had never heard of Burden, would cause the museum to fear for Burden's life, and would end at a time and in a way that Burden did not remotely anticipate.
That’s after Ebert had introduced his subject and compared Burden to Franz Kafka’s The Hunger Artist. Ebert continues quoting from his old news report while interrupting it every few paragraphs to insert new comments on Burden and whatever it is that he’s been doing. So we have Ebert, in the present (well, October of 2009) in dialogue with the Ebert of 1975, both contemplating Chris Burden.

Ebert’s illustrated his post with old photos of several of Burden’s performances:
In gathering art and video for this entry, I discovered something that rather surprised me. Burden had made no particular effort to photograph or film his performance pieces. The photos that exist are of low quality, suggesting snapshots by casual visitors. Some of the video was done by news organizations. When David Blaine is frozen into a block of ice or buried alive, he is always visible, and takes care that his performance is documented. For Chris Burden, I believe, the experience is what remains. His experience, and ours. Continuing as an artist, he eventually ended his body art, and became a teacher. For some years he has refused to discuss that period in his life.
That ends Ebert’s post.

It is well worth reading. Of course he tells how Burden’s 1975 Chicago piece ends, as well as discussing several other Burden performances. He makes a compelling case for those performances.

Not that he attempts to argue that they are great art, or even art. He doesn’t. But he makes some kind of case for – or is it merely around? – those performances. I’m tempted to say that the universe prompted Burden to do those performances so that Ebert could write this essay.

What’s tricky is whether or not Ebert’s post depends on the fact that Burden actually did those things. Sure, he wouldn’t have been assigned the story back in 1975 if Burden weren’t really doing such things. But the way Ebert handles his current piece, evoking Kafka (a writer of fiction), inserting comments on it, well somehow he manages to sublime those past events into his current meditation.

In another post Ebert tells us that his mother had wanted him to become a priest. Well, he’s edging up on that zone in this post. And, I gather, he’s a secular man these days.

Ah, the mystery, the mystery!

That Ebert, he’s a comer. Bears watching.

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