Every time you drive, walk or run past the Rose Art Museum at night you cannot help but be taken aback—and nearly blinded—by the amount of light coming from the “Light of Reason” installation. The collection of 24 street lamps release an aggressive glow, yet one cannot help but be drawn to the public art as a moth is to a flame. The “Light of Reason” is a huge part of campus, and one of the most beautiful, which is a shame because of how tucked away they are. The “Light of Reason” is a beacon on campus but is situated in a place which not only makes it hard to see from most parts of campus but also hard to get to.
But some Brandeisians are more familiar and drawn to the “Light of Reason” than others—namely our fellow Brandeisians from Los Angeles. This is for good reason as well, as the artist who installed the “Light of Reason,” Chris Burden, also has a similar installation which sits just outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Known as “Urban Light,” this art installation is a collection of 202 Los Angeles street lamps from the 1920s and 1930s that he acquired by going through landfills and refurbishing them. As written on the LAMCA website, “‘Urban Light’ has been unofficially adopted by Los Angeles as a symbol of the city,” just as Brandeis and the student body here have adopted the “Light of Reason.” To appreciate these works more it is important to understand who Chris Burden is by shedding a little light on the life of the man who has given our campus and Los Angeles so much of his own.
As recorded in his biography, Burden was born in Boston in 1946, but began his early life in Europe splitting time between France and Italy. It was not until the age of 12 did Burden go through a life changing experience which would be the inspiration for his art, and particularly his living art exhibits, moving forward. In Italy Burden was involved in a motorcycle accident which required that one of his feet be operated on but without any anesthesia. Burden soon moved back to the United States and completed high school in Cambridge Massachusetts.
A man always on the move, Burden moved to California when he was 19 to study physics and architecture. However, the young artist soon changed course and wound up receiving his Bachelors of Fine Arts from Pomona College in 1969 and then went on to receive his Masters of Fine Arts from the University of California at Irvine in 1971. There he was a student under the well known Robert Irwin and his performance pieces began to take shape—a particularly dangerous shape which were usually masochist pieces. In 1971 he released two pieces of performative art which have stood out in his career: “Shoot” and his master’s thesis.
Burden’s master’s thesis was simply planned as he shut himself in a locker for five days with only two five gallon buckets. One above his head which was filled with water to sustain himself and one below him which was empty to relieve himself into. As written in his biography, “Burden was excited about the idea that his body and his actions could be considered a work of art with little or no other materials involved.” Burden even said himself that, “it was a way of expressing myself artistically at a time when I did not have the money to express myself in any other way.”
But of his two performative pieces from that year “Shoot” went above and beyond his master’s thesis when compared on the scales of danger and self-mutilation. For this piece Burden asked a friend to shoot him with a .22 rifle from roughly 15 feet away. If all went according to plan, the bullet was only supposed to nick the side of Burden’s arm, but his friend was unfortunately off target and the bullet passed entirely through Burden’s arm instead. Burden had a clear intention with this piece: to present exactly what happens when a person is shot so that the audience could experience it live, not in a detached setting such as watching the television where the pain does not translate into the viewer. His audience could only recoil in shock at realizing that an actual person was just shot in front of them. In describing the piece, Burden stated that “it was really disgusting, and there was a smoking hole in my arm.”
In 1974, Burden continued to up the ante as he enjoyed placing the emphasis of his work on the lasting impacts they had on his body and not merely short term actions made to gain media attention. So that year he released “Trans-Fixed” where Burden nailed his hands, which were spread apart to the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle in an almost crucifix-like position. He had set up the car to rev its engine to represent screaming in agony while Burden remained quiet on the hood of the car.
In the years after “Trans-Fixed,” between 1974 and 1983, Burden was the recipient of four National Endowment for the Arts grants. From 1978 to 2005 he was employed as a professor of fine arts at UCLA. But as Burden grew older and changed himself so did his work which moved away from performance and veered more toward large-scale sculptures and installations with small, multiple parts (a call back to prior education in physics and architecture).
In 2008, “Urban Light” was opened infront of the LACMA and on Sep. 10, 2014, the “Light of Reason” was illuminated for the first time at Brandeis’ campus. A collection of 24 Los Angeles Street Lamps from the 1950s and 1960s, as according to a BrandeisNOW article. It was made based on a quote from Justice Brandeis who said, “If we would guide by the light of reason, we must let our minds be bold.”
As recorded by ARTnews, Chris Burden passed away on May 10, 2015 of a melanoma. An artist who was clear in his intentions, to show his audience the true lasting impacts of actions taken upon one another, has left us his light to allow us to follow in the footsteps of Justice Brandeis and “let our minds be bold!”