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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives on the West End with his lovely wife Emily, where they watch all the movies ever made. When not digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: May 8, 2017

‘Burden’ looks at the controversy created by a performance artist

Written by: Dennis Perkins
Older and younger images of Chris Burden in "Burden." Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Older and younger images of Chris Burden in “Burden.”
Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Films about art and artists are right at home at the Portland Museum of Art’s PMA Films, naturally. Whether about the creative process, an artist’s tortured life or the nature and purpose of art itself, films (themselves an art) focused on artists fit snugly as part of the museum’s ongoing, exquisitely curated film series.

But don’t get too comfortable.

“Burden,” the new documentary about infamous performance and installation artist Chris Burden is playing at PMA Films this weekend, from Friday to Sunday. Starting as an art student in the early 1970s, Burden plowed a deliberately disruptive path right through the art world, shocking and outraging some, enthralling others. Noted contemporary performance artist Marina Abramović, quoted in the film, cites Burden as a revolutionary and a major influence. Several influential art critics in “Burden” call the artist’s most influential works “rubbish,” with one clearly still-outraged critic calling Burden’s pieces things only “silly people go to see.”

Art is divisive, if it’s any good. The dilemma is that terrible art is, too. What’s ahead of its time, and what’s just self-indulgent nonsense? What will change the way the world sees, and what will only be held up, in retrospect, as an embarrassment? And where, in the annals of art history, does Burden’s “Shoot” belong?

That 1971 piece haunts Burden’s legacy as it does “Burden,” and it’s not difficult to see why. In it, Burden, in his freewheeling warehouse studio, F-Space, had a fellow artist shoot him in the arm. Anticipating a mere scratch, Burden saw the bullet pass through the meat of his left arm, with cameras rolling. Seen in an old interview (with Regis Philbin, of all people), the young, scraggly Burden explains that he doesn’t want to die for his art — but that it wouldn’t surprise him if he did. He had himself nailed by the hands to a Volkswagen Beetle for “Trans-Fixed,” crawled mostly naked through broken glass for “Through the Night Softly” and lay unmoving for days under a sheet of glass in “Doomed.” Even as he moved away from performance to installation later in life, Burden notes that his early work defined him.

Watch the “Burden” trailer

So what is Burden, and what is his art? “Burden,” directed by Richard Dewey and Timothy Marrinan, isn’t really interested in defining either. That’s in keeping with Burden himself who, as a young man, is seen as an inarticulate, possibly unbalanced daredevil. He objected to the oft-repeated label “the Evel Knievel of the art world,” but pieces like “Icarus,” where Burden lay nude while flames creep toward his outstretched arms, have more than a little “Jackass” to them. In present-day footage, he’s quieter, but not much more forthcoming, the 60-ish artist working now in his cavernous Topanga Canyon studio, carefully constructing elaborate, mammoth pieces with the help of a handful of dedicated assistants. “I don’t think about it much,” says the older Burden of his younger self’s exploits, but there’s more than a little of the edgy, possibly dangerous Burden in the older man’s unsettling presence.

A scene from "Burden."

A scene from “Burden.”

“Burden” lingers on the work, while allowing viewers to judge both it and the artist. And it’s hardly a whitewash. From his self-promotion to his period of wild drug use to his heedless irresponsibility with firearms (or ramshackle kinetic sculptures that one friend admits were a constant danger to everyone in the area), Chris Burden’s fame came yoked to a lot of distasteful actions. Especially when it comes to his relationships with women. Invited by friend and art patron Phyllis Lutjeans to perform a new piece on her cable show, Burden held a knife to the woman’s throat and threatened to kill her if the station stopped broadcasting. The now-elderly Lutjeans admits being terrified for her life, although she harbors no resentment. Another piece saw Burden purchase an 18-wheeler and fantasize on film about stalking his ex-lover while broadcasting racial epithets over a loudspeaker. In “Match Piece,” Burden simply flicked lit matches up and over his prone wife’s naked body.

"Medusa's Head"

“Medusa’s Head”

Burden’s later pieces see him becoming improbably beloved, his Erector Set skyscraper, his forest of antique street lamps and his massive hanging boulder honeycombed with model trains inspiring a more “cuddly” image, as one associate puts it. The film touches only scantly on Burden’s unconventional childhood, but his later pieces all come bound to childlike objects and have a mysterious power bound to their references to an earlier life. One final project – a carefully crafted, functional blimp – rotates silently and surely in front of an appreciative crowd, its clockwork precision and weightless loveliness all tethered to one of the most furiously debated imaginations in art history. Like Burden’s works, “Burden” isn’t an easy experience, but it’s a thought-provoking, sometimes shocking one.

“Burden” is playing at PMA Films at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Friday and 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The film runs 88 minutes and, while not rated, contains nudity, strong language and some art-related violence. Tickets are $8, $6 for Museum members and students with ID.


COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

PORTLAND PUBLIC LIBRARY
Thursday: “Mildred Pierce.” If you’ve enjoyed Jessica Lange’s faux Joan Crawford on TV’s “Feud,” head to the library as it kicks off “Mothers in the Movies” month with Crawford’s turn as the most self-sacrificing movie mom of all time in this classic 1945 melodrama. Free to the public.

RAILROAD SQUARE CINEMA (WATERVILLE)
Friday: “A Quiet Passion.” Cynthia Nixon (“Sex and the City”) stars as Emily Dickinson in this biopic about the famously reclusive poet, here presented as an independent, funny free-thinker.

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