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The Crowd: Performance artist speaks at event

May 18, 2011|By B.W. Cook

Chris Burden received his master's in fine art from UC Irvine in 1971. For his thesis, he locked himself in a school locker for five days with 5 gallons of water suspended above him.

This was the start of Burden's career as a performance artist, following a personal journey viewing contemporary art as a harbinger of political, social, environmental and technological change. Burden used his body as a canvas for his experimental statements, building a reputation in the international art scene for the next decade.

With the dawn of the 1980s, the artist switched his focus to object-making. During the last 30 years, he has dedicated his career to producing a varied collection of expressions of his view of a changing world. Among the most notable was "What My Dad Gave Me," a project installed at New York's Rockefeller Center in 2008, which consisted of a 65-foot tall Erector Set skyscraper.

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Last week, Burden returned to the location of his early artistic roots as the 2011 honoree at Art of Dining, sponsored by the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach. Following a laudatory introduction by Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, Burden appeared onstage at the Island Hotel, fronting an audience of some 300 donors who had come together to raise $400,000 that evening for OCMA.

To be more accurate, Schimmel's address was not so much an introduction of Burden as it was a biographical recap of the artist's career, beginning with his Orange County education and tracking his achievements forward to the present day. Schimmel did not end his words by saying "and now ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Chris Burden."

Instead, Schimmel ended his talk, and moments later, a man of average height without distinguishing features, with the possible exception of a short-cropped pageboy haircut and a tuxedo shirt opened at the collar, came out of the crowd and started talking into the microphone.

The man who locked himself in a locker for five days with 5 gallons of water overhead spoke in a soft, almost whispery voice, taking long pauses between his sentences. Burden essentially shared with the audience that he was simply an artist of his own creation in his own time, in his own way, against the tide, pushing the preverbal rock up the hill and somewhat amazed at the phenomenal success life has bestowed upon him.

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