“From Burden to Blaine: The Way of Endurance as Performance Philosophy”
In the 1970s, Chris Burden shocked the American public with performance art that caused radical discomfort in his audience, showcasing his endurance of hardship as a form of artistic expression. In his famous performance piece, ‘Shoot’ (1971), he was shot in his arm with a .22 rifle. In his 1974 ‘Transfixed,’ Burden was crucified to a VW Beetle. Also in 1974, in ‘White Light/White Heat,’ Burden apparently went for 22 days without food on a platform in a gallery in New York. In 1975, in ‘Doomed,’ he lay on a slanted sheet of glass in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago for 45 hours.
Burden’s controversial work was instrumental in the formation of the idea of Endurance Art, a category later embraced by the performer David Blaine, who deployed it within a different performance paradigm: performance magic. Since 1999, Blaine has apparently been buried alive, frozen in ice, balanced on a 30m pillar in Bryant Park, NYC, suspended in a Plexiglas case over the River Thames, London; he’s been impaled by spikes and had a .22 rifle fired into his mouth.
One of the philosophical differences between these endurance artists arises from the difference in their theatres of work. In the case of Burden, audiences are asked to reflect on his performances in the context of high art – there is no reason for disbelief or mistrust; in the case of Blaine, audiences are required to challenge the evidence of their eyes to determine whether or not what they are seeing is really happening. In Blaine’s own words: is this real or magic? (2013). In this way, this paper argues that Blaine manages to offer basic and foundational challenges to his audience’s worldview; as an act of performance philosophy, David Blaine has taken endurance art to new levels of sophistication and impact.
Chris Goto-Jones is Professor of Comparative Philosophy & Political Thought at Leiden University in The Netherlands, where he is also the principle researcher of the Political Arts project, funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (www.politicalarts.org). He is the author of a number of books and articles, including: Conjuring Asia – Modernity, Orientalism, and Secular Magic, forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, 2015.