“Evel Knievel and I are two different people,” Burden once said. He had to make this statement after profiles in Newsweek and Esquire made him famous to Americans as a stuntman of the art world. In 1971’s Shoot, he was just supposed to be scratched lightly. But at the last minute, the conscripted friend pulled slightly to the left; Burden was shot right through the arm.
The violence of that piece captured American imaginations. Guns are part of the mythology of American identity, from cowboys to cops, while the Vietnam War made shooting an intimate and recent experience for many young men. In the documentary, a friend of Burden’s describes how quiet the room went before the shot, the visceral tension, the direct connection she felt between her body and his. “Everybody fantasizes about being shot,” Burden says. The intimacy of the footage of the work is shocking.
Burden was the right artist for America at that moment, and he became a celebrity. He also became an unstable asshole, by all accounts. His work could be aggressive to others. In 1972’s TV Hijack, he held a knife to his friend’s throat on screen and demanded to “go live.” He also confessed to an extramarital affair on television, which his then-wife Barbara describes in the movie as unpleasant. He became obsessed with guns and began to carry around a loaded Uzi.
Ironically, his most productive time artistically was when he was settled quietly with Barbara: She supported him while he worked on his endurance projects, and even considered nailing his hands for him in Trans-Fixed (1974), though she later bailed. In that decade he certainly seems to have been a man of two halves. In the documentary, a friend of Burden’s describes having a stoned hallucination during a performance, in which Burden split into two identities. One was kind, trustworthy, genuine, the other a clever trickster whom you “wouldn’t trust for a second.”
Does it matter that Burden could be an awful man? In a way, it does, because gender is always pertinent to discussions of fine art. It is tempting to posit that endurance art has always been coded male in the public discourse, since physical strength and violence are associated with masculinity. One thinks of early works like Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1971), a marathon piece in which the artist masturbated eight hours a day under a boardwalk in a gallery.