At 8:20 p.m., the body artist Chris Burden entered a large gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art, did not look at his audience of 400 or more, set a clock for midnight, and lay down on the floor beneath a large sheet of plate glass that was angled against the wall. So commenced on April 11 [1975] a deceptively simple piece of conceptual art that would eventually involve the imaginations of thousands of Chicagoans who had never heard of Burden, would cause the museum to fear for Burden’s life, and would end at a time and in a way that Burden did not remotely anticipate.

As I read this entry from Roger Ebert’s journal, I am standing on a sidewalk in downtown Ottawa, waiting for a bus.

I arrived at the stop at 5:17 p.m. No one else is waiting; I’ve just missed a bus.

[Burden, lying on the floor,] was wearing a Navy blue sweater and pants, and jogging shoes. He let his hands rest easily at his sides and looked up at the ceiling, blinking occasionally. He could not see the clock.

The audience perhaps expected more. There was a pregnant period of silence, about 10 minutes, and when at the end of it nothing else had happened, there were a few loud whistles and sporadic outbursts of clapping. Burden did not react. At various times during the next two hours, audience members tried to approach Burden with advice, greetings, exhortations, and a red carnation. They were politely but firmly kept away by the museum attendants. A girl threw her brassiere at the glass; it was taken away by a smiling guard. At 10:30 p.m., when I left, the crowd had dwindled down to perhaps 100.

There are three bus routes I can take home at the end of a long work day. I prefer this one, because it drops me off closest to my door. On the other hand, it is unreliable during the afternoon rush hour. At other times of day, I never have a problem. But 5:17 p.m., and I’ve just missed a bus? It’s a bad sign.

I consider taking one of the other routes, and decide against it.

I stand. I wait.

At 1:15 a.m., I went to the pay telephone and called Alene [the museum’s publicist]. She said Burden was still on the floor. I said the hell with it and drove back downtown to the museum. Burden had not moved. […]

“He doesn’t move except for what look like isometric flexings,” Alene Valkanas said “He flexes his fingers sometimes, and once in a while you can see his toes flexing.” Burden seemed removed to a great distance. He was not asleep. There was no way to tell if he was in a meditative trance, or had hypnotized himself, or was fully aware of his surroundings. After an hour, I left very quietly, as if from a church.

The bus is supposed to arrive every 15 minutes. I missed the 5:15 bus. No problem, right? Another bus should arrive at 5:30.

But it’s now 5:32 p.m. No bus is in sight.

The day is cold. I’m standing still on a concrete surface. They say that heat rises but, in this instance, a chill is rising: up from my feet, spreading throughout my body.

On Sunday, driving back to Chicago, I stopped at the Standard Oil truck stop in Gilman to call the museum. Burden had not moved. The time was 2:30 p.m. Forty-two hours and ten minutes.

I came into the office, where I learned that Ira Licht and other museum authorities were consulting specialists to determine whether Burden’s life was in danger. A urologist said no one could go more than perhaps 48 hours without urinating and not risk uremic poisoning. Burden hadn’t had anything to drink, but that was not a problem at the moment, apparently; since he was not exercising he would not dehydrate dangerously in only two days.

It’s now 5:50 p.m. I’ve been waiting more than 30 minutes. Two buses should have passed by now.

I consider, for the second time, taking one of the other routes. But I’ve already waited 30 minutes. The next bus is bound to arrive at any moment, right?

This is one of those scenarios where you have already invested so much time (or money, or emotional energy) that you don’t want to reverse course and have nothing to show for your investment. So you double down:  you invest more time (or whatever). It’s usually a mistake, and the consequences can be fatal.

Alene Valkanas called at a little before 6 p.m.

“The piece ended at 5:20,” she said. Forty-five hours. “We felt a moral obligation not to interfere with Burden’s intentions, but we felt we couldn’t stand by and allow him to do serious physical harm to himself. There was a possibility he was in such a deep trance that he didn’t have control over his will. We decided to place a pitcher of water next to his head and see if he would drink from it. The moment we put the water down, Chris got up, walked into the next room, returned with a hammer and a sealed envelope, and smashed the clock, stopping it.”

6:02 p.m. Still waiting. Where’s the damned bus?!

Perhaps, I muse, there’s a sniper tucked away on some relatively quiet street on the #5 route. The sniper hates OCTranspo for some unknown reason. He waits for a bus to approach:  ZING! — he puts a bullet through the head of the bus driver.

A second bus approaches, right on schedule; same macabre result. A third bus; a third bullet.

The envelope contained Burden’s explanation of the piece. It consisted, he had written, of three elements: The clock, the glass, and himself. The piece would continue, he said, until the museum staff acted on one of the three elements. By providing the pitcher of water, they had done so.

“I was prepared to lie in this position indefinitely,” he wrote. “The responsibility for ending the piece rested with the museum staff but they were always unaware of this crucial aspect.”

The piece had been titled “Doomed.” […]

“My God,” Alene Valkanas said. “All we had to do was end it ourselves, and we thought the rules of the piece required us to do nothing.”

Unaware of the sniper’s implacable malice, I wait, futilely, for a bus that will never arrive.

Or perhaps my imagination is beginning to run away with me. Have I mentioned how much I hate waiting for buses?

About Chris Burden I have little doubt. He was fully prepared to remain prone under the glass for an indefinite period of time. Like the Hunger Artist, his performance was life itself. He has removed his own choice from the equation. If he had remained on the floor for days or weeks and then died, well, that would have been how the piece ended. He had turned over his life and will to exterior forces.

So do we all.

That’s when it occurs to me:  like Chris Burden, I have surrendered myself to capricious, external forces.

I exercised a choice insofar as I chose this bus route over the two alternatives. (I won’t make that mistake again.) Having made that choice, I stand. And I wait.

When is the bus coming? I have no way of knowing. Clearly the schedule is of no help.

More to the point, I have no control over the bus’s arrival. It will get here whenever it deigns to get here. There’s not a thing I can do to hurry the bus along its route.

What a strange coincidence, that I would read this particular Roger Ebert essay on this particular occasion. I am Chris Burden, lying under the glass, waiting for the museum staff to take it into their heads to do something.

Please, God, don’t let me wait forty-five hours!

“The piece had been titled ‘Doomed’.” This information is not encouraging.

“I thought perhaps the piece would last several hours,” Burden said. […]

On the first night, when I realized they weren’t going to stop the piece, I was pleased and impressed that they had placed the integrity of the piece ahead of the institutional requirements of the museum.

“On the second night, I thought, my God, don’t they care anything at all about me? Are they going to leave me here to die?”

p.s. The bus arrived at 6:12 p.m. Actually, two buses arrived together. No doubt there are two more buses just a little behind them. I have waited fifty-five minutes; enough time for four buses to pass.

A young man got onto the bus several stops after me. He complained to the bus driver. I admired how polite he was, under the circumstances.

“I’ve been waiting fifty minutes,” he said, evenly. “Why is this bus so late?”

“Traffic was bad,” shrugged the driver.

Unbidden, that sniper once again presents himself to my mind.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Snaars
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 18:49:14

    Good piece. My bus runs every 45 minutes to an hour. I’ve missed it only once.


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