I’m near Chris Burden’s age, so some of my life story aligns with his. One of those intersections was the Vietnam War, or The American War, as it’s known in Vietnam and some other places. I never wanted to serve in Vietnam, and moved to Paris to go to school and took my Army physical in Germany. In Los Angeles you would be inducted no matter what. There was a big quota to fill. I had high school chums who got killed there, and other friends who returned psychologically damaged. As we know now, it was a trumped up war, as McNamara admitted later on; we should have learned from the French debacle but didn’t.
Burden, who died yesterday at 69 of melanoma, lived in Los Angeles, had a studio in Topanga Canyon, and taught at UCLA, my alma mater. Although he is best known for his extreme conceptual / performance piece, Shoot (1971), a personal reaction to the Vietnam War and all the people being shot and killed there, and many of his shows in various LA galleries, the piece I most remember was at the Museum of Modern Art in 1992: It was called The Other Vietnam Memorial, a counterpoint to Maya Lin’s huge Washington D.C. Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
It was an immense series of revolving copper plates, 13′ tall, and filled with etched names of the three million war dead, including the 57,939 American fatalities and the more than two and a half million Vietnamese dead, both military and civilian. He gathered the names from Vietnames phone books. You would move the huge heavy sheets around like you would in a poster shop with large posters. It is one thing to think 3 million people; it is another thing to behold and digest just how many human beings those names represent.
It was powerful and truth be told I just fell apart in the museum that day. Seeing the enormity such loss was devastating.