American sculptor, performance artist and installation artist. In an early performance, while still an MFA student at the University of California, Irvine, Burden shut himself in a locker for five days, with only the bare necessities for survival. Over the next few years he undertook many feats of physical endurance, including being shot in the arm in Shoot (1971) and being nailed to the back of a Volkswagen, the engine running at speed to mimic a howl of pain, in Trans-fixed (1974; see 1999 exh. cat., p. 31). These simple, shocking acts constituted what came to be termed as Body Art and were part of a wider criticism of institutional definitions of art. They also took place at the time of American involvement in Vietnam and reflected some of the extremes of public reaction to the atrocities commited by both sides in that war.
In 1978 Burden was appointed professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and moved away from performance to an involvement with installation, informed by his interest in technology and engineering. The violence of his earlier performance found a new outlet in his reflections on power politics, in works such as A Tale of Two Cities (1981; see 1999 exh. cat., p. 24) and in his increasingly large scale meditations on the vulnerability of art institutions. In Samson (1985; see 1999 exh. cat., p. 26), a large jack was braced between opposing walls of a gallery, expanding slightly as each visitor entered. These concerns found their most literal expression in the 1986 installation Exposing the Foundations of the Museum, in which he dug through the gallery floor and exposed the foundation piers of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.
Burden’s preoccupation with machines found increasingly grandiose expression throughout the 1990s. In 1996 he created The Flying Steamroller (see 1999 exh. cat., p. 44), in which a steamroller was connected to a large, counterbalanced pivot arm. When driven at speed the streamroller left the ground, centrifugally flying; the transcendence of physical limitations in this work was reminiscent of the more intimate transcendence of pain in the earlier performances. The theme of technology moving bodies through space was further explored in When Robots Rule: The Two Minute Airplane Factory (1999), a conveyor-belt machine built to Burden’s specifications, which was designed to build and launch small balsa airplanes with the minimum of human intervention. Burden’s empirical investigations, characterized by periods of research, development and production, are intended to expose the ills of modern society; through an abstracted technology placed in the service of art, his work provides symbols of redemption and liberation.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press