You know “Urban Light” even if you don’t know it’s called “Urban Light.” Comprised of 202 vintage cast iron street lamps that had once dotted locations all around Southern California, the artist Chris Burden (who died of cancer at age 69 in 2015) installed the crowd-pleasing assemblage in 2008 in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Almost overnight, it became a symbol of the city, a joyful upstart to rival the Hollywood sign. Used repeatedly in film, television and advertising, it lives in L.A., but now it’s everywhere, and the Southern California selfie has never been the same.
Venture past “Urban Light” and into the museum, and you’ll find another popular Burden, 2011’s “Metropolis II,” a speeding blur of 1,100 toy cars zooming through a dense, dizzyingly landscape of Erector Set grids and towering blocks. It predates the opening sequence of “La La Land” and incorporates the same joys and frustrations of living in a region known for both its speed and its gridlock.
In “Burden,” a respectful, reserved, and charming documentary from filmmakers Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey, it’s a continuous if convoluted line from the artist’s later public work — notable for its warmer embrace, its peaceful solidity, as much for its conceptual underpinnings — back to his early renegade attempts to bring literal death-defying danger to spaces where art is observed and consumed.
Burden helped to pioneer what became known as performance art (he usually referred to it as sculpture) by intentionally being shot with a gun in a gallery, by having himself crucified — real nails through real hands — on the back of a VW Beetle, by folding himself into a locker for five days and, in one performance, by daring gallery onlookers to electrocute him.
“We would make an art that couldn’t be bought or sold, and thereby gain control of it,” a young Burden says in archival footage, back when “disruption” hadn’t yet come to mean a new way of making money.
In the early 1970s, word of Burden’s endurance-based activities was passed around in art circles, and the crowds grew, coming to watch the man who might do just about anything in front of them, putting his own body on the line for art. He bought time on local Southern California TV stations to display video projects, one of which simply repeats his name in the company of other, much more famous artists. And a year before The Sex Pistols spat and used profanity on UK chat shows, he was interviewed on December 24, 1975, by Regis Philbin on “Philbin & Company,” confusing the host.
(Philbin: Why did you allow yourself to get shot? Burden: It was a piece of sculpture, and it was the best thing I could think of doing at that time. That’s why I did it.)
The “why” is where “Burden” occasionally goes fuzzy — the man never did learn to give a straight answer — and it’s for the best; the film hasn’t a care for a question as goading and literal-minded as that. Pivoting backward and forward in time to contrast the slower, mellower, yet still enigmatic, sixty-something artist working with a small team of assistants in a reclusive Topanga Canyon outpost, with the young, nerve-jacked 1970s version who seems, at times, to want to crawl out of his own skin, the film’s attempt to connect the dots of Burden’s life is most successful when it focuses on the work.
Friends tell stories, and fellow artists like Ed Ruscha and Marina Abramovic and critic Peter Schjeldahl express admiration for his daring and his commitment. And the late critic Brian Sewell dismisses Burden’s pushy material as “a thing that silly people go to see,” not caring that he comes off like a flesh-and-blood “Simpsons” meme, the old man yelling at clouds.
“Burden” thoughtfully folds this critical distaste and public bafflement into its conventional documentary form of archival material and talking-head interviews, letting it try to find its legs amidst the occasionally queasy thrill of witnessing a young artist derail art history with substantive output that, four decades on, still feels confrontational, full of direct action and ideas. Careful not to deify the man, Marrinan and Dewey balance their clear love of their subject with a sobriety that elevates it beyond the usual artist-doc hagiography.
That’s quite an accomplishment, considering Burden’s tension-filled body of work, full of the push-pull of creation and destruction. This was the contradictory man, after all, who placed an enormous, motorcycle-driven flywheel in a gallery and “hoped” it wouldn’t obliterate everything around it, including him.
He was also the man who created the meditative “All the Submarines of the United States of America,” a piece that saw hundreds of miniature war vessels floating benignly and dreamlike in midair. He built a painstakingly slow kinetic sculpture involving a 100-ton jack that, connected to a turnstile through which observers had to walk, pushed giant timbers into the walls, a game of chicken with the literal destruction of the museum that housed it.
And finally he created, from castoff materials left for the landfill, one of the most beloved pieces of public museum art in one of this country’s most densely populated urban centers. It’s a monument to something from nothing, a site that literally glows, and like this winning film, it’s a moving elegy to its creator.