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Arts & Entertainment

The story behind Chris Burden's 'Shoot'

Chris Burden's iconic sculpture,
Chris Burden's iconic sculpture, "Urban Light," located in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Amaury Laporte/Flickr Creative Commons

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Chris Burden, who died this week, grew up in Massachusetts, but he came of age as an artist in Southern California. Some of his most well-known performances were staged here. He lived inside a locker for five days. He hid himself behind a parked car, lying down. He crucified himself to a Volkswagen Beetle.

And in 1971, at the F-Space gallery in Santa Ana, Burden performed “Shoot,” where a friend and collaborator shot him in the arm with a .22 caliber rifle. The piece would define his career for years to come.

Barbara T. Smith is a performance artist and Burden's friend. She remembers the night "Shoot" happened — she even recorded the audio.

At the time, Smith was attending the University of California, and she and Burden were going through the school's Master of Fine Arts program. The two, along with other students in the MFA program, opened a gallery in an industrial part of Santa Ana to show and perform work they couldn't put on at UCI. They called it called "F-Space."

On the night Burden performed "Shoot," Smith brought a polaroid camera and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Once all of the observers had arrived, Smith said, Burden locked the doors to the gallery. The performance began.

The plan was for Burden's friend and fellow artist, Bruce Dunlap, to fire the rifle at Burden's arm. Burden stood against the wall. 

"And then, there were these very tense seconds of time where, I think you hear him cocking the gun. I'm not quite sure about that. And then — pow! — he shoots," Smith said. You can see a video of the performance — it's only about 8 seconds long:

"And Chris sort of falls forward, and holds his arm. And then I think I remember him saying 'I'm shot!'" Smith said. "Everyone then had to deal with the reality that he had, in fact, just been shot."

Burden and his colleagues went to the hospital after the performance. "But then they had the problem of a gunshot wound — how do you explain that?" Smith asked. "They stood around and concocted a story about what happened and the hospital believed it!"

Smith said she never asked Burden about why he did the piece, adding that Burden was generally reluctant to explain the motivation behind his works. Asked to speculate, Smith said the piece reflects the "singularity of the body experience." In other words:

The fundamental reality of life, our own bodies. If one of us had tried to interfere in any way, he could've been killed. It would've startled Bruce and he wouldn't have aimed correctly. We were actually, physiologically almost, connected to everyone in the room. Everyone just held still to not interfere in any way. It was like we held his life in our hands.