I recently found this article on Roger Ebert's blog (you know, that film critic fellow), and was fascinated by it. My fascination exists on several levels, and I thought I might try to articulate exactly what it is that fascinates me about the event the article describes.
"What [the monks] all had in common was a quest for a definition of human life independent of any definitions contained in the ordinary structures of life....The coming of Christ had reopened the fundamental question, what it means for us to be human beings. It is no longer sufficient to accept from our social milieu the values, aspirations and so on which structure our concept of ourselves; the question has to be pushed to a much further limit: 'What is a human being as such, as envisaged by the Creator?'
"It is difficult to avoid the feeling that at least some of the curious practices adopted by some ascetics were intended to be a kind of experiment, designed to extract further evidence of just what it is to be human. It is almost as if they were saying, 'Let us fast for a week and see what happens,' or 'Let us fasten ourselves to rocks and see what happens.' It is by pushing human nature to the limits of its endurance that you discover what human nature really is."
So what is Chris Burden up to? Is he tapping into something similar? Perhaps; though I suspect that he would be able to articulate what he's trying to demonstrate less well than the monks could. Of course, the theological rationale that the monks had (assuming Fr Tugwell is correct) is absent from what Burden is up to, but, given that at least in his case there appears to be no particular vanity or desire for fame in what he does, it seems reasonable to suppose that his various conceptual-art pieces are driving at similar questions. And, in this age of self-indulgence, any act of asceticism, whatever it's goal or purpose, is countercultural and, thus, impressive in a way.