24 Works of Modern Art That Shook the World

Chris Burden -Shoot

“Burden’s performances often put his life in danger, testing the boundaries of what was acceptable as art and the role of the audience as observer”

-The New York Times

Introduction to Shoot and Chris Burden

Chris Burden’s 1971 performance piece Shoot was a commentary on the intense violence of the Vietnam War. This was the first war to be televised, enabling people to finally see the atrocities first hand. Burden saw those close to his age being drafted and more often than not, killed.

The idea was this: He would ask a friend to shoot at him, and if done right, the bullet would whiz past his arm, only grazing him.[1] Burden chose Bruce Dunlap, a fellow artist, to assist him in this piece. The video is black and white, shot on a super 8 film camera, and lasts for only about 8 seconds. The walls are barren and white, while the floor is dark, reflecting the light tops that both men wear and their dark bottoms. Dunlap’s hair is about shoulder length while Burden’s is buzzed. Dunlap stood about 15 feet away from Burden and fired. Unfortunately, Dunlap was slightly off, and instead of the bullet grazing his arm, it went clean through. Burden described the feeling as getting nicked by a giant force, making his arm go numb.

He explained that his performance works were often an attempt to control fate, or give the viewer the illusion that one can do so. The piece gave viewers a closer view at the horrific act of being shot, thus making it more personal to them, as opposed to watching videos of the often romanticized war on television. In it’s starkness, Shoot sought to resensitize people to violence, something that had become more prevalent in the news and less shocking to viewers. Not only did Burden challenge the traditional standards of art, he challenged himself by consistently putting himself in physical danger, proving his own dedication to his art and social cause. Jerry Saltz argues that his piece Shoot was so “pure, perfect, self-evident, riveting, and revealing that it became an instant masterpiece of modern sculpture, even though no one had ever seen it.” [2] Shoot is compared to Duchamp’s fountain, claiming that it is America’s version of the urinal.

More on Chris Burden

Chris Burden began attending UC Irvine in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.[3] It was there that he surrounded himself with various performance artists. At this time, a university in California was a social hub for anti war protests, something that obviously influenced his art. Burden and many others began to project this sense of anger towards the US government and the traditional American lifestyle in their pieces. Shoot was a commentary on the complacency felt towards the everyday violence of the Vietnam War, though there are other pieces that have similar goals. For example, his 1974 piece Trans-fixed, in which he literally crucified himself to the hood of a Volkswagen Beetle, and while we don’t know his true intentions, one can assume this is a commentary on capitalism, something that was also being contested by the youth movement at the time.

Death of traditional art + Intense Artists

This era was not one of complacency, the counterculture movement was trying to move away from all of the conventions they had grown up in, and this is most notably reflected in the art and music that came out of it. When Burden first began creating in the 1970’s, the art world was having one of its periodic “nervous breakdowns.”[4] Artists began experimenting in every way possible. Traditional art like painting, was said to be dead and sculpture was being reinvented. Instead of using objects and traditional platforms and materials for art, artists were using their bodies as tools. Jerry Saltz argues that the artist’s body becomes a machine as it acts, is acted upon and, absorbs and changes material, becoming a living sculpture. He describes this as “sacrificing for his work while enacting a complex sadomasochism of love, hate, desire, and aggression.”[5]

The youth felt betrayed and ignnored by their government, therefore using other means to get their message across. They began creating art that pushed the boundaries of what was comfortable for the masses. Some prominent figures from this scene are Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono. Along with Burden, these artists started taking art in a direction that one could not ignore, even if they tried. Burden nailed himself to a car, shoved himself in a locker for five days, and had a friend shoot him in the arm. They did everything they could to get across what they were trying to say to the public. In Burden’s case, he used intense performance art. While his audience was typically young artistic folk, it was targeted towards the elite of America. For example the Nixon administration, who held sway over things such as the Vietnam War, but often ignored the outcry of young people. This whole idea is still applicable in today’s society. It is specifically interesting to view Shoot from a contemporary standpoint. Though Burden’s piece was most likely a response to the U.S.’s desensitization to violence through the Vietnam War, one could look at it through the lens of today’s wild increase in gun violence. The best art often finds itself relevant no matter the decade.

There is a certain baggage that comes with being any kind of artist at the forefront of a movement. When people are shocked by a piece of art, they often want to force it into conformity. They want to ground it, and make it into something that they can understand. While that makes sense for the consumer, it often alienates the artist. An example of this is Bob Dylan, as society tried to force him into a folk “voice of the younger generation” archetype, leaving him feeling constricted. When the audience takes hold of the identity of the artist, it can push them to do things wildly different. Chris Burden had a similar experience as he was saddled with a public identity as “the artist who shot himself,” feeling stuck in a society assigned identity.

Burden's Other Artwork

Chris Burden created other similarly thought provoking pieces throughout the seventies, including having himself shot (Shoot, 1971), locked up (Five Day Locker Piece, 1971), electrocuted, (Doorway to Heaven, 1973), cut (Through the Night Softly, 1973),  and crucified (Trans-fixed, 1974). Matthew Teti argues that Burden’s pieces are a critique of art museums and galleries.[6] Burden’s art is incredibly radical, it pushed the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be shown in an art museum. In his first piece, from April 26 until April 30 1971 he locked himself in a two-foot-high, two-foot-wide, three-foot-deep locker. This project was for his graduate thesis, performing it for five days straight with only five gallons of water. After this first piece, he began performing more dangerously with his body in Shoot and onward by finding new ways for human made objects to cause harm to his body.


There are varying perspectives on the meanings of Burden’s work. Some question whether he acts boldly to study the reactions of others while some believe it is to bring a new platform to the art world. For example, the dying of traditional art brought to popularity the usage of more controversial and abstract art mediums. In order to create something unlike any other artist, he uses his own body, completing challenges that have never been thought of as art before. However the art not only comes across in his physical performances, but in the reactions of the viewers. What they decide to do and the actions they take is art in itself by commenting on social norms people have become accustomed to. A perfect example of this is Burden’s piece Shoot. Due to the coverage of the Vietnam war during this time, violence was a normal part of media. How the viewer reacted to Burden shooting himself, could reveal how affected they were by this desensitized violence.
[1] Gleisser, Faye. “Asco, Chris Burden, and the Politics of the Misfire.” pp. 312–331
[2] Saltz, Jerry. "Chris Burden's Work Was Like an Atomic Bomb."
[3] Teti, Matthew. “Occupying UCI: Chris Burden’s Five Day Locker Piece as Institutional Critique.” pp. 39–52
[4] Saltz, Jerry. "Chris Burden's Work Was Like an Atomic Bomb."
[5] Ibid
[6] Teti, Matthew. “Occupying UCI: Chris Burden’s Five Day Locker Piece as Institutional Critique.”


Saltz, Jerry. "Chris Burden's Work Was Like an Atomic Bomb." Vulture, 11 May 2015. Gale General OneFile,https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A507783539/ITOF?u=chap_main&sid=ITOF&xid=d47e6683. Accessed 30 Oct. 2019.

Wagner, Anne M. "Then and there." Artforum International, October 2011, 220+. Gale General OneFile (accessed December 6, 2019). https://link-gale-com.libproxy.chapman.edu/apps/doc/A270159663/ITOF?u=chap_main&sid=ITOF&xid=5ca82300.

Ward, Frazer. “Gray Zone: Watching ‘Shoot.’” October, vol. 95, 2001, pp. 115–130. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/779202.

Gleisser, Faye. “Asco, Chris Burden, and the Politics of the Misfire.” Journal of Visual Culture, vol. 17, no. 3, 2018, pp. 312–331., doi:10.1177/1470412918800480.

Teti, Matthew. “Occupying UCI: Chris Burden’s Five Day Locker Piece as Institutional Critique.” RACAR: Revue D'art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review, vol. 43, no. 1, 2018, pp. 39–52. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26454007.

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