Blog: MCA DNA

In Support of Uncertainty: Chris Burden’s Doomed

By Michelle Puetz

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Chris Burden, Doomed, 1975 © MCA Chicago

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The MCA is deeply saddened by the passing of artist Chris Burden on Sunday, May 10. We are honored to have worked with Burden throughout the various stages of his career, from his earliest performance work to his more recent sculptural projects, and our thoughts and condolences go out to his family and friends. Burden is arguably one of the most significant figures in the history of contemporary art, and the nature of his work—often described as intensely provocative, iconoclastic, extreme, groundbreaking, masochistic, radical, political—has profoundly affected the way we think about the extremely visceral impact of art as experience.

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Chris Burden, Doomed, 1975 © MCA Chicago

About

In April 1975, the MCA presented what has now been recognized as one of Burden’s most seminal and controversial performances, Doomed. Organized in conjunction with the exhibition Bodyworks and curated by Ira Licht, Burden’s performance was one of four artist events that took place at 237 East Ontario Street, the MCA’s first location. Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson, and Dennis Oppenheim were also invited to perform in the galleries. Licht conceived the exhibition as a reflection on what he described as the growing practice of artists using their bodies as a means of performative expression. Licht viewed Bodyworks as connected to, but distinct from, Happenings and performance art, because the content of the work was often intimately personal—the artist’s physical body “bears the content and is both subject and means of aesthetic expression.”1

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Following Burden’s earlier performances—which include Five Day Locker Piece and Shoot (both 1971); Deadman (1972); Through the Night Softly (1973); and the 22-day performance at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts gallery in New York, White Light/White Heat (1975), in which the artist lay prone on an elevated flat triangular platform in the corner of the gallery for the duration of the exhibition without eating, drinking, talking, or coming down—it isn’t surprising that the MCA took out a life insurance policy on the artist prior to his April appearance. That said, in keeping with the museum’s experimental ethos, the staff provided Burden with the minimal materials he had requested in advance, and embraced the uncertainty of what was to come.

Burden entered the MCA’s gallery around 8:20 pm on Friday, April 11, 1975. In his words, the performance “consisted of three elements: myself, an institutional wall clock, and a 5-by-8-foot sheet of plate glass. The sheet of glass was placed horizontally and leaned against the wall at a 45-degree angle; the clock was placed to the left of the glass at eye level. When the performance began, the clock was running at the correct time. I entered the room and reset the clock to twelve midnight.”2

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Chris Burden, Doomed, 1975 © MCA Chicago

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There was a huge crowd of visitors and spectators at the beginning of the performance and media coverage (print, local and national broadcasts) increased the longer that Burden remained under the glass. At some point on Saturday, museum employee Dennis O’Shea (currently the MCA’s Manager of Technical Production) rented a video camera and began documenting the performance. This video document was preserved, and although it is not available for public use at this time, it is held in the MCA Archives and available as a reference for scholars.

When I asked O’Shea why he started recording the performance and why he took it upon himself to stay with Burden for the duration of the piece, he said that he knew something profoundly significant was taking place: “It was in the air. No one knew what it was exactly, but that lack of clarity was, in some ways, a part of what made Burden’s piece so exciting.” O’Shea described the atmosphere of the museum as one in which there was a real sense of community—the museum stayed open all night on Friday and Saturday (much to Burden’s surprise and ultimate dismay). O’Shea described the atmosphere as akin to a vigil and said that there was an air of reverence around Burden’s presence in the space. Because no one at the MCA knew how the piece would end, everyone was implicated in the work.

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As Burden explained: “I was prepared to lie in this position indefinitely, until one of the three elements was disturbed or altered. The responsibility for ending the piece rested with the museum staff, but they were unaware of this crucial aspect. The piece ended when Dennis O’Shea placed a container of water inside the space between the wall and the glass, 45 hours and 10 minutes after the start of the piece. I immediately got up and smashed the face of the clock with a hammer, recording the exact time which had elapsed from beginning to end.”3 Interestingly, this marked the ending of the body of performance-based work for which Burden is so well known.

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Chris Burden, Doomed, 1975 © MCA Chicago

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While Burden knew that the museum was unaware of the terms of the work, it seems clear that he simultaneously embraced the consequences of this uncertainty and expected that the museum would stop the performance when the galleries normally closed on Friday evening. After the piece ended, Burden said that he “kept thinking that the museum wasn’t worried about me and they’ve decided that if my intent is to, you know, die of thirst or something, then they’re going to go along with it.”4 One of the most powerful aspects of watching the documentation of Burden’s performance is the way that this tension—between the artist’s intent and the obligations of the museum—played out in an atmosphere that was designed to support the most radical work being made at the time.

After talking with O’Shea yesterday about his recollections of the weekend, I am struck by the fact that the duration of the work was not simply delimited by his final intervention into the performance space. Early on that Sunday morning, hours before the piece ended at 5:20 pm, O’Shea approached Burden and asked if he was hungry. He said that Burden looked up at him and smiled broadly, but remained in his prone position. O’Shea’s decision to bring the empty coffee pot and carafe of water was the result of his experience of being with, and caring for, the artist for the 45 hours that Burden was in the galleries.

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Chris Burden, Doomed, 1975 © MCA Chicago

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In the wake of Burden’s death, the video documentation of Doomed strikes me as even more poignant. The questions the work raises in its explorations of durational performance, the possibility of death and the limitations of the human body, and the consequences of intervention are not only relevant to the piece as a work of art, but to the way in which Doomed profoundly affected, and implicated, all who were present.

Dennis O’Shea has continued to work at the MCA, in part, because of what he has described as the meaningful experience of interacting with contemporary artists as well as their work. In so many ways, it is this kind of experience—which shows the capacity that art and artists have to profoundly affect our lives—that makes the ending of Doomed so impactful. In O’Shea’s words: “In all of my years at the museum, I’ve never participated in an event that captured the imagination of a city in the way that Chris Burden’s Doomed did. It changed the way I see things to this day.”


1. Ira Licht, Bodyworks, exh. cat. (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1975), n.p.
2. Chris Burden in Chris Burden: A Twenty-Year Survey, exh. cat. (Newport Beach: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1988), 74.
3. Ibid.
4. Video documentation by Dennis O’Shea of Chris Burden’s Doomed, 1975, MCA Library and Archives.