Seeing Gray: The Power of Interpretation in Chris Burden’s Shoot By Amber Donofrio

Class: Performance Art, Institutional Criticism and the Museum                  Major: Writing ’14

at any moment, the world presents us with a composition in which a multitude of meanings and realities are available, and you are able to swim, lucid and self-contained, in that turbulent sea of multiplicity.
–Richard Foreman1

      At 7:45 p.m. on November 19th 1971, performance artist Chris Burden was shot. Standing still inside an empty gallery space, surrounded by white walls, he watched as his friend pointed a loaded rile at his left arm from a distance of approximately fifteen feet. Ten people observed the scene; they stood to the side. The trigger was pulled, and a black and white photograph was taken to document the event (Figure 1).2

Chris Burden’s performance Shoot instantly became infamous, making his name known to those in the art world. Since then he has been labeled as a masochist, a social therapist, a hero, and a victim.3 Regardless of what artworks he produced afterward—anything from a 1974 performance piece entitled Trans-fixed in which he nailed himself to the top of a Volkswagen Beetle4 to a 1988 sculpture labeled Medusa’s Head which represents what he describes as “a 19th century ecological nightmare that didn’t come to pass”5—Burden has become known as “the artist who shot himself.” Yet, as Burden himself said in a 1996 interview, “I wasn’t the artist who shot himself, and I am not the artist that pushes museums down.”6 Burden’s Shoot may have involved him getting shot, but the title of “artist who shot himself” has far outlived the wound. Thus, despite orchestrating the action, Chris Burden is not in control of how he or his art is perceived. The viewers ultimately instill the meaning.

Known for performing Shoot and other acts of self-inflicted pain,7 Burden is continuously referred to as “quasi-masochistic” and “quasi-sadistic”8 despite his own explanations for his art pointing otherwise. “The masochist intends to hurt himself, that’s not my intent,” Burden stated in response to a The New York Times article about Shoot,9 but viewers continue to label him. Called “the Evel Knievel of art” by critic Douglas Davis in Newsweek, “the last rictus of Expressionism” by Robert Hughes in Time magazine, and an “avant-garde novitiate” by Peter Plagens in The New York Times, critic and historian Hal Foster even went so far in his art history textbook Art After 1960 to describe Burden’s art as “a sacrificial theater” in which the “ambivalent positions of narcissism and aggressivity, voyeurism and exhibitionism, sadism and masochism” are all evoked.10

Yet, as critic Kathy O’Dell goes on to mention in her book Contract with the Skin: Masochism, Performance Art, and the 1970s, the use of the term “masochism” to label Chris Burden and his work all depends on one’s definition of that word. According to O’Dell, although Burden’s art may reflect some desire of his to inflict suffering on himself, “masochism must be technically linked with sexual practice,” this arousing of fantasies which Burden presents no signs of possessing.11 In fact, as writer and art critic Maggie Nelson states in response to Shoot in her book The Art of Cruelty:

…to place this work of Burden’s too quickly under the rubric, or even in the vicinity, of ‘cruelty’ seems wrongheaded…in contrast to other artists whose work seems to embrace the clinical definition of a masochist—‘one who derives sexual gratification from pain’—Burden has always seemed aloofly adrift from carnal pleasure, and more devoted to the formal creation of abstract, minimalist, intensely charged spaces.12

    It is true that Burden imposed pain on himself, but that does not mean this pain brought him pleasure. Nothing about the documentation of Shoot implies that Burden found joy in the act, or any form of gratification. As objectively stated in the documentation of Shoot, at 7:45 p.m. on November 19, 1971 Chris Burden had his friend shoot him in the arm, but that is all. He went no further than stating the facts, leaving this “abstract, minimalist, intensely charged space” for what happened that night open for the public to interpret—which they did, by placing him into the “diagnostic category called ‘masochist.’”13

Further, not only did viewers immediately label Burden and his art as both cruel and offensive, but they also interpreted Shoot as a commentary on the tragedy of the Vietnam War, despite Burden never explicitly stating that relation. This comparison was inevitable given the time period of the piece, how it was performed amidst the turmoil of the war itself, yet questions such as Plagens’ “What has this to do with the real violence of the Vietnam War?”14 carry only as much weight as they are allotted. Burden made sure to clarify how his wound was nothing like those of the soldiers in the war,15 but apart from that he never said Shoot was about Vietnam or gave any indication alluding to that idea. In fact, there is a paradox in Plagens’ inquiry as he evidently assumed “real violence” only occurs in war, yet Burden’s work itself gained controversy because of its supposed cruelty. What, then, constitutes actual violence? And if the violence in Shoot is not “real,” then why did it trigger such strong reactions?

According to Chris Burden himself, “everyone subconsciously has thought about what it’s like to be shot,”16 and perhaps that has something to do with the public’s reactions to his art piece. In a culture overflowing with depictions of violence in the media, there has to be some explanation for why television representations are acceptable whereas real-life acts of violence are viewed as travesties. Burden did not ask to be shot because he wanted to hurt himself, but because “it’s the idea of being shot to be hit…it’s something to experience.” In his own words, “How can you know what it feels like to be shot if you don’t get shot? It seems interesting enough to be worth doing it.”17 As opposed to acting solely for the purpose of commenting on the war, Burden initiated Shoot out of a curiosity for what being shot felt like, a desire to experience the event rather than simply portray it.

Yet, this boundary between real life and performance is not one people typically cross; just as writer Willoughby Sharp went on to comment while interviewing Burden for Avalanche magazine, “Most people don’t want to be shot.”18 There is this disjunction between reality and fiction, what is acceptable in theory versus what is acceptable for the real world. Viewers may “subconsciously” desire to be shot through some inner fantasy as Burden proposes, but just because people watch violence on television does not necessarily mean they actually advocate violence outside of the screen. As philosopher Judith Butler even goes on to say, discussing performance in her essay “Perfomative Acts and Gender Constitution”:

In theatre, one can say, “this is just an act,” and de-realize that act, make acting into something quite distinct from what is real…[but] on the street or in the bus, the act becomes dangerous, if it does, precisely because there are no theatrical conventions to delimit the purely imaginary character of the act…there are no conventions to facilitate making this separation.19

    Shoot fostered discomfort in its audience purely because it broke down the separation traditionally imposed between the public and private spheres of performance, those of the act and of life outside of the act. Chris Burden was shot as a performance piece, but was also shot in real life. This, in part, accomplished what Maggie Nelson describes as a “full-fledged assault on the barriers between art and life,”20 a dissolution of the expected boundary between representation and reality. It is one matter for Burden as an artist to get shot, but the fact that he imposed that pain on himself in actuality, as a person rather than as a character, is problematic insofar as it is difficult to comprehend. And, in sensing this confusion, the inconceivable nature of Burden’s supposed “performance,” viewers feel the need to interpret Shoot and attempt to decipher some definite meaning or purpose behind it.

To complicate matters further for the audience, Burden went at means to keep his work as neutralized as possible, avoiding “delivering a verdict” as he left the decision-making up to the viewers.21 Through the various forms of documentation kept from the performance—that three- sentence description mentioned earlier, a handful of photographs, and a blurry, black-and-white video of the event—Burden evaded stating any direct opinion about his piece: his views on violence, any intentions (apart from his desire to experience getting shot, mentioned after-the-fact), or even his reaction to wounding his arm. He withheld any comments of pain or panic, providing just the facts of the performance and nothing more. This left it up to the audience to make whatever assumptions they desired from the fragments available to them, whether their interpretations were of the cruelty of the artwork or of its significance given current political conditions.

This said, the controversy following Burden and Shoot is only as prevalent as the viewers say it is. As horror author Brian Evenson states, as quoted in The Art of Cruelty, “In life, violence happens to you. In literature, you make the choice to pick up the book and read, to continue reading.”22 Although viewers and critics alike went into an uproar about the violence of Shoot, they were ultimately the ones who allowed the piece to affect them, who willingly looked at the work and attempted to unearth some meaning from it. “Burden stares glass-eyed at the camera…clearly shocked, and probably speechless, as he sits there trapped in the moment of having just been shot,” Communication Studies Professor Patrick Anderson from University of California, San Diego states, describing a documentation photograph of Burden (Figure 2) in his essay “Trying Ordeal: Henry Tanner and Chris Burden in the Event of Subjectivity”23; yet, this itself is just one interpretation of the photo. There was no evidence, apart from the photograph itself, that Chris Burden was shocked or traumatized by the event, and claiming he was is simply making an assumption about how Burden seems to have reacted from the image of him. Photographs are often viewed as “stupefying evidence of ‘this is how it was,’” to quote theorist Roland Barthes,24 when in fact they themselves carry the weight of subjectivity, both through which pictures are taken and how the viewer wishes to interpret them through his or her own bias.

Going even further, this loaded view of Burden’s intentions behind Shoot, as well as the ambiguous meanings of the documentation from the performance, could perhaps relate to what Collective Actions, an art group in Russia which organized performances throughout the 1970s and 1980s, refers to as an “empty action.” Simply put, any action which an artist performs is “empty” when first executed. Only when the viewers reflect on that action does it become “real” or carry any meaning.25 In other words, Shoot was meaningless until discussed. Chris Burden was shot in the arm as a personal experiment to discover what being shot felt like, but that was the extent of his experiment. Only when people began to react, calling Shoot masochistic and questioning what sort of person would perform such an act, did the art piece begin to carry any social or political significance. “My work has always been political,” Burden said in a 1990 interview with art critic and historian Suzanne Muchnic, “but not in the sense that war is bad or the poor are oppressed.”26 These are connections we as viewers create, links between what we see in the performance piece and what we want it to mean. Just as Nelson surmises in The Art of Cruelty, “the implicit reasoning behind such arguments is that art has more value if its creator or its ultimate ‘message’ can be somewhat neutralized into the benevolent, or at least interpreted as critical of the cruel—or if its creator could be satisfactorily proved to be uncontaminated by any sadistic or narcissistic urges.”27 If the artist does not explicitly state the “message” behind his violent work, as is the case with Burden and Shoot, then he runs the risk of being categorized as sadistic and narcissistic, among other analyses, as explanation for his cruelty. Just as Sharp mentioned in his interview with Burden discussed previously, people do not generally ask to be shot in the arm. Therefore, it might be concluded from this artwork, as many people did conclude, that Burden as a person delights in self-inflicted pain.

Still, one more explanation for peoples’ reactions to Shoot, and to their subsequent search for its meaning, deals with a natural human inclination to pinpoint the familiar. Looking again at Figure 2, the documentation photograph Anderson described, one is struck by what O’Dell names a “contract with the skin,” this sensual reflexivity in recognizing Burden as a performing body.28 In that photograph, Burden looks out at the viewer, and yet it is not Burden as an individual people see, but Burden as an artist (the “artist who shot himself”), and, ultimately, Burden as an object of his artwork. As writer Lea Vergine argues about performance art, the artist “becomes his object…[T]he artist is the thesis with respect both to himself and his subject, this is to say that he posits himself as object since he is conscious of the process in which he is involved.”29 Chris Burden is a subject in Shoot, but in being so he also objectifies himself as thing-which-is-shot. His body is the material of his artwork just as the bullet is, and in recognizing this audience members grow further aware of their own bodies in relation to the artwork, how they too could very well be in Burden’s position.

In fact, as Burden himself mentioned in a 1996 interview with artist José Antonio Sarmiento, “all the audience cannot help but place themselves into my shoes.”30 In recognizing Burden as “a piece of skin that touches at the same time as being a piece of skin that is touched,”31 a stranger’s hand grasping and isolating Burden’s wounded arm in the photograph, viewers grow vulnerable as they think of themselves and their own experiences of what it feels like to have someone touch them. This, in part, further strengthens the familiarity of the circumstance, each viewer able to relate to the concept of being touched on the skin and therefore able to better visualize themselves as Burden, to question why or how one would go about getting shot. This attributes to the emotional reaction to Shoot many experienced, how placing themselves into his shoes they could not distance themselves enough from their bodies to grasp the concept of willingly being shot, for the sake of art or experience.

Therefore, although Chris Burden is the artist of Shoot, the viewers are the ones who ultimately give significance to both he and his artwork. Leaving his art as neutral in opinion as possible, providing only a brief description and unexplained photographs and video, Burden created a space open for interpretation, where the audience could unearth whatever meaning they wanted, whether that be a commentary on the violence of the Vietnam War or simply a masochistic artist providing himself with sexual pleasure via pain. Burden gave up control over directing the message of his work, yet in doing so he allowed Shoot to become all the more controversial, giving an opportunity for all the “multitude of meanings and realities” dramatist Richard Foreman mentions in an artwork to come forth and reveal themselves to the world. Shoot is significant because it keeps people curious and unsettled, diving deeper in their psyches to determine why they have this reaction, ultimately realizing how who they recognize in the work is themselves. Because, after all, as Maggie Nelson goes on to conclude in The Art of Cruelty, when it comes down to it, “no one can do our waking for us…The door has to stay open.”32 Whatever truths or realizations may be buried in Shoot is not for Chris Burden to say; the viewer is the one who must go searching.


Figure 1: Chris Burden, “Shoot” (1971). F Space, Santa Ana, CA


Figure 2: Chris Burden, “Shoot” (1971). F Space, Santa Ana, CA


1 Foreman quoted in Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011), 52
2 Chris Burden’s original description of his performance: “At 7:45 p.m. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket 22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me.” (Frazer Ward, “Gray Zone: Watching Shoot,” October 95 (Winter 2001): 114.)
3 Ward, “Gray Zone: Watching Shoot”: 116.
4 Hal Foster, et al, Art Since 1960 2 (New York: Thames & Hudson Inc., 2004), 568.
5 Burden quoted in Suzanne Muchnic, “Wrestling the Dragon,” ARTnews 89, no. 10 (Dec. 1990): 124.
6 Ward, “Gray Zone: Watching Shoot”: 114.
7 Further examples include Into the Night Softly (1973) in which he crawled across broken glass on his bare stomach and White Light/White Heat (1975) in which he lay on a platform in the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Gallery in New York for three weeks starving himself. (Muchnic, “Wrestling the Dragon”: 128.)
8 Foster, Art After 1960, 568.
9 Burden in Kathy O’Dell, Contract with the Skin: Masochism, Performance Art, and the 1970s (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 3.
10 Davis and Hughes quoted in Muchnic, “Wrestling the Dragon”: 128; Plagens quoted in Ward, , “Gray Zone: Watching Shoot”: 116; Foster, Art After 1960, 568.
11 O’Dell, Contract with the Skin, 3.
12 Nelson, The Art of Cruelty, 110.
13 Patrick Anderson, “Trying Ordeal: Henry Tanner and Chris Burden in the Event of Subjectivity,” Radical History Review 98 (Spring 2007): 151.
14 Plagens quoted in Ward, Gray Zone: Watching Shoot”: 128-9.
15 Ward, “Gray Zone: Watching Shoot”: 120.
16 Burden quoted in Ward, “Gray Zone: Watching Shoot”: 119.
17 Burden quoted in Gwen Allen, “Against Criticism: the Artist Interview in Avalanche Magazine, 1970-76,” Art Journal 24, no. 3 (Fall 2005): 57.
18 Sharp quoted in Allen, “Against Criticism: the Artist Interview in Avalanche Magazine”: 57.
19 Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Amelia Jones (New York: Routledge, 2002), 398.
20 Nelson, The Art of Cruelty, 95.
21 Muchnic, “Wrestling the Dragon”: 126-7.
22 Evenson quoted in Nelson, The Art of Cruelty, 94.
23 Anderson, “Trying Ordeal: Henry Tanner and Chris Burden in the Event of Subjectivity”: 147.
24 Barthes quoted in O’Dell, Contract with the Skin, 15.
25 Boris Groys, History Becomes Form: Moscow Conception (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010), 151.
26 Muchnic, “Wrestling the Dragon,” 129.
27 Nelson, The Art of Cruelty, 121-2.
28 O’Dell, Contract with the Skin, 16.
29 Vergine quoted in O’Dell, Contract with the Skin, 9.
30 Burden quoted in Ward, “Gray Zone: Watching Shoot”: 119.
31 Psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu quoted in O’Dell, Contract with the Skin, 15.
32 Nelson, The Art of Cruelty, 118.


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