BURNING MAN: Art on Fire

By Chris Dickman
Founding Editor, Graphics.com


Sometimes things arrive just when you need them. And for me there's no better illustration of that than BURNING MAN: Art on Fire, by Jennifer Raiser, Scott London and Sidney Erthal, which showed up here last week. Burning Man is of course the annual event in the Nevada desert that wrapped up on Monday. Over the years I'd heard echoes of it in the press and online but it always seemed rather marginal. However, in what amounts to a revelation, this book makes it clear that the media has simply made a point of misrepresenting it. Take this opening to a piece in Sunday's New York Times:

"As the annual Burning Man festival wrapped up over the holiday weekend, thousands of weary festivalgoers were somewhere in Nevada packing up yurts, washing off body paint and dreading their eventual re-entry to the real world. Over the last few years, Burning Man — the mass camping trip/rave that participants have deemed indescribable to anyone who hasn’t attended –- has become a veritable staycation for San Franciscans who don’t attend. They say restaurants have more tables, parking spots are plentiful and yoga classes are extra chill."

Note the derisory tone, designed to marginalize the event and its participants: yurts, body paint, mass camping trip, rave, yoga classes. And while there may well have been a yoga instructor attending this year's event who was camping in a yurt and attended a musical performance while wearing body paint, that's hardly the point, as I have now learned. Because Burning Man is all about art. More specifically, sculpture. Hundreds of sculptures pop up in the desert each year, with some of them created on a very large scale indeed. None are for sale and most have been created collaboratively, thanks to an entrenched system of volunteering.

The book does good job of providing both a concise history of the festival, since its conception in 1986, as well as covering the structural and philosophical underpinnings that make it so significant, guided as it is by 10 principles:

radical inclusion
radical self-reliance
radical self-expression
communal effort
civic responsibility
leaving no trace

Now those are some interesting principles for creating a monumental sculpture festival in the Nevada desert. For more general background, the inevitable Wikipedia entry, as well as the Burning Man site, are both worth a visit. But if your interest goes beyond that, I highly recommend Art on Fire, which weaves high-quality photos of many of the most striking works (some of which are shown below) with thoughtful artist profiles, to create an almost overwhelming case for the importance of this event. All I can say is that I came away inspired and somewhat amazed that such a thing can even exist, let alone thrive. Long may the Man burn!

Sean Orlando and Five Ton Crane, Steampunk Treehouse, 2008. Copper, steel, wood.
This piece explores the relationship between the rapidly changing natural world and the persistent human drive to connect. Participants could climb the circular staircase to enter an adultsize treehouse with a handmade asesthetic. “My father and I built a tree house when I was a kid,” says creator Sean Orlando. “For this one, we collaborated with Kinetic Steamworks to plumb the tree to shoot big puffs of steam.”

Flaming Lotus Girls, Soma, 2009. Steel, aluminum, mixed metal, propane, and other flammable gases
The Flaming Lotus Girls are fiercely devoted to the collaborative process that characterizes so much of Burning Man’s organizational style. They meet weekly at their arts space in San Francisco’s Hunters Point neighborhood. “We use a unique design methodology with a hyper-fluid organizational structure,” says Mortazavi. Along with a core group of about 30, they include up to 100 volunteers in each large-scale project, citing creativity, education, and human contribution as an integral part of their work.

Dadara, Transformoney Tree, 2012. Wood, paper, plaster.
A wooden tree base sporting leaves of invented currency had decorative but no monetary value. But then all money has little or no value in Black Rock City—everything, except ice and coffee, is offered as a gift without expectation of a transaction. This highly interactive piece suggested the old idiom—money doesn’t grow on trees—as art.

Dadara’s “bankers” for the installation Transformoney Tree in 2012. Their suits gradually turned into painter’s overalls.
The bankers who explained the process were wearing dark blue pinstriped business suits, which faded down to painter’s overalls at the bottom. “Wearing a suit was the most unusual costume on the playa. It made a lot of people very uncomfortable.” He adds, “Some people said we were destroying money. The only thing we were destroying was its financial value. We were creating art.”

The art theme for 2009 was “Evolution,” and the Man Base consisted of irregularly shaped wooden triangles intended to represent the chaos at the heart of life.
There is ritual surrounding every aspect of the Man’s creation and destruction. He is traditionally 40 feet tall, standing on a tall wooden base that participants can enter and climb. The blueprints for his construction are a closely guarded secret, provided only to the carefully selected crew, largely volunteers, who gather at Burning Man’s Nevada work ranch in June for the process of carefully cutting, assembling, joining, and sanding of the Man with a level of craftsmanship befitting an antique piece of fine furniture.

Flaming Lotus Girls, Serpent Mother, 2006. Metal, propane, electronic components, hydraulics.
Serpent Mother was a 168-foot-long sculpture of a skeletal dragon-like serpent coiled around her steel egg, creating a protective circle inside which 100 people could gather. Most of her 50 vertebrae spouted propane-fueled flame effects, shooting six-foot-high jets of flame that could be activated in various patterns by participants at four separate locations, or activated at once by the artists using the “Wow” button. The serpent’s head was particularly impressive, moving over 20 feet in the air, opening and closing a jaw of jagged teeth, and breathing fire, under-lit with computer-controlled LED lights. The pneumatically controlled head would dip down close to the crowd and snap her jaw, an effect that never ceased to threaten and impress nearby participants without causing actual harm. She surrounded a copper-clad shell that remained closed throughout the week, until Friday night, when it was ceremonially hinged open to shoot a rainbow of colored liquid methanol flame effects into the sky and hatch a baby serpent out of the egg. The wildly popular installation burned over two tons of propane per night.

Flaming Lotus Girls, Xylophage, 2013. Metal, propane, wood, plaster, plastic. Looking up inside Xylophage in 2013.
The term Xylophage refers to insects that feed on fungi and decaying wood. It celebrates the life that is nourished from the decomposition of another—the endless circle of birth and destruction.

Kate Raudenbush, Star Seed, 2012. Powder-coated steel, steel cable.
“Carl Sagan said, ‘We are all made of Star Stuff.’ The theme was ‘Fertility.’ I wanted to think of Burning Man as this cultural seed that grows out of this most unlikely fertile ground on the planet. It grows up and out and pollinates the world with ideas. Three sets of curvilinear roots arc their way over a triple pathway of ascent, built around the geometry of three interlocking circles, a symbol of creation and cell division. They meld into tetrahedrons and octahedrons, the building blocks of all matter in the universe. My vision for this piece came fully formed, almost animated—I imagined it falling from the sky and taking root, or as little rockets, filled with Burners. This piece came from a lot of personal pain and fear, and visualizing what it looks like to rise beyond that. It is over 40 feet tall, scary to climb, and blissful at the top, where you have amazing perspective on how you have reached above your earthly fears. You are afraid that you don’t think you can get there, and the railings fall away, which is very intentional. And you discover a place of rest, to feel cradled and filled with light, growing upward to a higher consciousness.”

Laura Kimpton and Jeff Schoenberg, Word Series, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013. Steel. EGO, 2012. Wood, plaster, paint, metal objects.
Spray-painted bright gold, the forms affixed and gilded on the surface of the letters become a sinister narrative that participants could interpret in myriad ways: the ego is fake; things look rich and important when gold paint is applied; if you look too closely, you will be appalled by what you see. The EGO celebration culminated at midnight of the Burn 2012, when ten individuals with flamethrowers were invited by Kimpton to simultaneously turn their torches onto the EGO and watch it burn to the ground.

Marco Cochrane, Truth is Beauty, 2013. Steel, mesh, lighting.
Cochrane credits the open-minded culture of Burning Man for inspiring the sculptures. “I’m trying to demystify nudity. I see how free women are on the playa, how they can possess a playful energy here that they cannot do in real life.”

Rebekah Waites’ Church Trap in 2013. Rebekah Waites’ Church Trap engaged the notion of the Christian church, and evoked passionate interaction and response.

The Temple of Transition in 2011.
The most visible symbol of inspiration and praise in Black Rock City is the Temple, which is always situated at the very top of the city, in the open playa due north of the Man. The Temple is a deeply spiritual place, one that offers a sacred space for contemplation, free from religious or denominational tenets. Its design changes every year, but its meaning remains the same: a place for the community to celebrate the gifts of life, reflect on the past, remember loved ones, and relinquish sadness to the flames that ritually engulf the Temple and close the event on Sunday night.

Warmbaby, The Wet Dream, 2011. LED rope lights, umbrellas, audio components, steel tension wires.
Warmbaby is a UK-based architectural design collective that created a space intended to bring a whimsical representation of cooling English rain to heat-soaked Black Rock City. The structure housed a canopy of umbrellas to protect from the heat of the sun during the day and a 24-hour background audio of thunder and lightning, illuminated at night with LED rope lights positioned to resemble rain. The umbrellas were gifted to participants returning to rainy climates at the end of the week.