What happens when you plunk large-scale craft installations into a pop-up desert city of 75,000 partying campers?
Sex, drugs, rave culture, steampunk, and sand bugs all flourish in the 100-degree heat, but Burning Man insists that the major draw is the fantastical art—the wildly mutant vehicles, psychedelic art, and electronic dance music.
Burning Man began haphazardly in San Francisco in 1986, when Larry Harvey and Jerry James celebrated the Summer Solstice by building an 8 foot-tall wooden man and burning it on Baker Beach.
Right: Aerial view of Burning Man gathering at Black Rock City, 2012. Photo by Scott London.
When local authorities ousted their celebration from the beach in 1989, Harvey and James relocated their Burning Man to a dried lake bed “Playa” in Black Rock Desert, a Mars-like landscape100 miles north of Reno. Over the years, Burning Man has grown into a massive festival melting New Age and pagan rites, rituals, and pyrotechnics. It takes place over nine days and is spread out in a vast instant city that covers seven square miles; the grandest spectacle comes on the second last night, when a giant “burning man” effigy is set afire.
Left: Mischell Riley, Maya’s Mind, photo: Darrell Anstead.
In its fiery guise, Burning Man has antecedents in such fire festivals as New Mexico’s Zozobra fiesta, in which “Old Man Gloom” is burned to purify misery; Germany has a spring equinox festival in which an effigy called the “Boogg” is burned to predict the coming summer weather. But more than a fire festival, Burning Man also radiates a whiff of Woodstock/Coachella festivals minus the music: stuck in the middle of the Playa’s emptiness, Burning Man is a PARTY!
Below: Marco Cochrane, Truth is Beauty (2013), stainless steel rod, stainless steel mesh, Photo: Eleanor Preger.
Art installations became a part of Burning Man in the early 1990s. These works have always been large-scale, immersive, and interactive—an aesthetic reflection of Burning Man’s mantra about community participation.
But it was Burning Man’s commitment to the “maker movement” that inspired curator Nora Atkinson to organize an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery. Appointed the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft in 2014, Atkinson perceived Burning Man’s commitment to “handmade” as a leading exemplar of how 21st century craft is evolving. She believes that much like a century ago, when the Arts & Crafts Movement emerged as a response to machine-made consumer culture, Burning Man craft-making reflects a similar response to the commodification of the Digital Age.
Left: Truth is Beauty, installed in SI’s Renwick Gallery.
The result is the exhibition “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man.” Organized across the entire Renwick building and in several outdoor sculptures spread through downtown Washington, the exhibition believes Burning Man is “a uniquely American hotbed of artistic ingenuity, driving innovation through its philosophies of radical self-expression” and community participation. The title “No Spectators” is a headline principle of the festival, and the Renwick wants visitors to get involved with the artworks displayed in the Renwick’s spaces. (Renwick press release, Dec. 6, 2017).
Right: Mixed media ‘portal’ entrance. Photo: Marvin Joseph, The Washington Post.
The exhibition “portal” is a grand arch of plywood, fabric, and photographs (right) that leads visitors into rooms filled with steampunk-influenced costumes and jewelry. Installations include an 18-foot-tall statue of a steel mesh woman reaching to the sky; a fantastical “mutant” dragon vehicle made of pots and pans; and a combination bus-movie theater that features much hand-carved wood and trompe l’oeil decoration. There is a virtual reality installation, and huge psychedelic mushrooms that change colors when you step on designated spots (left) . The museum’s vast Grand Salon has been transformed into an intricate “Temple” of carved wood templates that cover the entire space.
Left:FoldHaus, Shrumen Lumen, 2016.
Burning Man is presented as a landmark indicator of the 21st century “maker movement.” There are other dynamic examples, including Industry City’s “Collision Project” in New York, which nurtures “makers” in interactive labs and galleries “dedicated to the visual manifestation” of ideas. The Museum of Arts and Design spotlights such maker work as that of Katya Grokhovsky’s “Theater of the Mundane,” a sculptural mixed-media installation and performance art that seeks to retrieve “the handmade and discarded.” (press release, Museum of Arts & Design)
Right: Duane Flatman, Tin Pan Dragon (2007), recycled found objects. Photo: NK Guy, burningcam.com
Burning Man is seeking a wider audience beyond its nine-day desert identity, but will its idealistic principles of collaboration and generosity of spirit survive wider recognition? A Smithsonian exhibition sends a message of cultural “legitimacy” that can radically transform Burning Man’s intrinsic commercial-free identity.
Another brick in the road to Oz is that Burning Man has recently become a major attraction for celebrities and Silicon Valley elites like Tesla’s Elon Musk, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. They avoid the ravers and reside in air-conditioned campsites with private chefs.
Left: Laura Kimpton’s and Jeff Schomberg’s XOXO will be shown by the Farragut West Metro station entrance at 18th and I streets NW, Washington, DC. Photo: Scott London.
“No Spectators” is an Intagrammers’ delight. But showcasing these works in a major Renwick exhibition definitely marks a sea-change in Burning Man’s identity. Will these selfless craft-makers resist the siren song of commerce, or will the groundswell of national recognition transform Burning Man into the maker movement’s hottest consumer ticket?
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man will be at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, in part, through September 16, 2018, and in part through January 21, 2019. The six outdoor sculptures will be presented in downtown Washington through December 2018.
Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita, National Portrait Gallery