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:
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!