On April 23, 1974 artist Christopher Burden stood shirtless on the back bumper of a Volkswagen Beetle parked in a small garage in Venice, California, facing the closed garage door. He reclined so that his naked back blocked the back window, and extended his arms back and above his head in a cruciform pose. An assistant, armed with a hammer and two nails, nailed Burden’s hands, through the palms, to the roof of the car. The car was started, or maybe it was already running–the details are sketchy–the garage door was opened, the car was shifted into neutral, and then pushed out onto the street. Then for two minutes the driver revved the engine of the Beetle while Burden lay motionless, nailed to the car. At the end of the two minutes, the car was pushed back into the garage. The End. Burden called this performance Trans-fixed, the latest in a series of works that he called “body art.”
The following April, a couple weeks shy of a year from his performance of Trans-fixed, Burden traveled to Chicago to participate in an exhibition at the MCA that included Laurie Anderson, among others. A few days before the exhibit, Burden, who was quickly becoming a nationally and internationally renowned figure, gave an interview over lunch at the Chicago Arts Club to an up and coming film critic by the name of Roger Ebert.
In the interview Burden defines “body art” as “an examination of reality, a calling into question of what it is to exist,” and then explained Trans-fixed to Ebert this way:
The garage doors opened, and the VW was pushed halfway out, with the engine in neutral. It ran at full blast, making a screaming noise. Then the ignition was turned off, the car was pulled back into the garage and the doors were closed. To the spectators, it was well, sort of like an apparition.
I first read about Burden’s performance in the course packet for a class called simply “The Avant Garde.” This was in 1995. I was a newly declared English major at Notre Dame, and was feeling very worldly. I remember that feeling well because on the first day of the class I walked in and intentionally sat down next to a young woman with dyed hair and a nose ring, a look that was not typical for Notre Dame undergrads at that time, or even now. As I sat down, she glanced at me in a tired, cynical way and let out a sigh, then, pointing to the wall above the chalkboard, she said, “Have you ever noticed there are crucifixes in every classroom?” I looked where she pointed and nodded in recognition at the small, six inch by four inch icon there. I had in fact noticed this, but it had never struck me as odd. I was raised Catholic and so their presence did not faze me at all; in fact, they were comforting in a way. My classmate gave a little shiver and said, “They’re so fucking creepy.”
The crucifixion had been showing up in my academic life a lot that year. In a survey of Modern Art I wrote my final essay on the influence of the crucifixion of Jesus in the paintings of Francis Bacon, a essay which led me down a rabbit hole of research into the crucifixion as a form of execution, not as a proper noun for the death of Jesus. In my research I found an interview with Bacon, in which he says of his interest in the crucifixion as a subject for his paintings: “I know for religious people, for Christians, the Crucifixion has a totally different significance. But as a non-believer, it was just an act of man’s behavior to another.”
The idea that crucifixion was merely further evidence of mankind’s cruelty, the use of the imagination to find novel ways to humiliate and punish, left me stunned, and sent me back to an important tenet of faith; that Jesus was born man; that he had a human body. It was an odd realization; confirmation of a reality that I knew intellectually but never quite believed, or, maybe, better put, had never understood the stakes of believing.
Three days after Burden’s interview with Ebert, on Friday April 11th, at approximately 8:20 in the evening, Burden arrived at the Modern Contemporary Art Museum on Michigan Avenue to a large crowd, including news media from all over the world. He had come to perform a new work called Doomed.
Doomed consisted, in his words, 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.”
The “performance,” as with Trans-fixed, was Burden. The plan was to lie on the floor of the museum behind this transparent glass lean-to “indefinitely, until one of the three elements [Burden, the clock, or the sheet of glass] was disturbed or altered.”
But the museum staff did not know that these were the terms of the piece. Burden intentionally did not tell the staff of the museum so that a tension would be created between his artistic intent and the museum’s staff concern for his health and safety. And so 45 hours later, on Sunday evening, at 5:20 pm, museum employee Dennis O’Shea, who had been present during the entire duration of the piece, concerned about Burden, set a carafe of coffee and a pitcher of water near Burden underneath the pane of glass. At that moment, Burden got up, took up a hammer laying nearby and smashed the face of the clock hanging on the wall, thus ending the performance. Though no one knew it at the time, Doomed, would be the last body art piece Burden would ever perform.
“Station XIII” is the penultimate section of a 14-section project that reflects upon daily life during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. This particular “station” takes its inspiration from a course I took as a sophomore in college called “The Avant Garde,” in which I was first introduced to the work of performance artist Christopher Burden, best known for “Trans-fixed,” a piece in which he was crucified on the back of a Volkswagen. I am submitting this particular excerpt to ACM because it features a performance by Burden at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in April of 1974.
Though the larger project that this excerpt comes from is not explicitly religious, it does borrow the 14-part narrative structure from the popular Christian Lenten ritual the Stations of the Cross or Way of the Cross, in which pilgrims reenact the Passion of Jesus Christ by processing and praying before tableaux depicting different moments from that story.
A note on composition: The text and accompanying ambient music were composed independently of one another during the pandemic at a distance of over 2,000 miles—me in Indiana and Kyle in Oregon. Kyle did not have access to the text I was writing while he composed, and I did not have access to the music he was composing while writing. This was to ensure that any synchronicities would be accidental. Note that in the sound mixing stage, Kyle has made some musical choices to accentuate my textual decisions.
The ultimate intention is for all 14 stations to be heard together as a live participatory installation, but also for each station to stand on its own as its own evocative vignette that creates space for personal reflection.
We hope you enjoy our collaboration.
Dave Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (Soft Skull Press). His essays and reviews have appeared in print and online at the Paris Review, The Normal School, The Los Angeles Review of Books, the Utne Reader, Killing the Buddha, and Image, among others.
Kyle Peets is a multi-disciplinary artist and educator who has exhibited his work nationally and abroad. He has had solo exhibitions at Platte Forum gallery (Denver, CO) as well as various group exhibitions: Character Profile at Root Division gallery (San Francisco, CA), Art Is Our Last Hope at The Phoenix Art Museum (Phoenix, AZ), and Art Shanty on the frozen White Bear Lake (Minneapolis, MN). His work has been published in the periodical SPRTS by Endless Editions (New York, NY), and is archived in the Watson Library Special Collections, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and MoMA Manhattan. He received his MFA in Printmaking from the University of Iowa and a graduate certificate in Book Arts from the Iowa Center For The Book.
Jennifer Kircher Herman is a writer and photographer. In her photography, she is drawn to statues, as they capture in stone the emotions of the human hands that carved them. She is widely published in literary journals, including North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Hobart, Alaska Quarterly, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, The Rumpus, American Literary Review, and The Nebraska Review, where her work also won the Fiction Prize. She holds an MFA from Emerson College, and has been selected to participate in numerous writing workshops including Bread Loaf, One Story, and Kasteel Well, where she won the fiction fellowship. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of essays.