Burning Man brings a slice of the desert to White House doorstep

Updated 12th April 2018
Burning Man participants (2013)
Credit: Neil Girling
Burning Man brings a slice of the desert to White House doorstep
Written by Ana Rosado, CNN
The way art is created and experienced at Burning Man reflects the principles of the community that gathers there each year. Whether making collaborative sculptures, mind-bending installations or burning palaces, in the event's temporary desert town of Black Rock City, inclusion is obligatory and participation embraced.
This approach differs to that of most formal art institutions. But now the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery is exploring the artistic collaborations championed by the notoriously free-spirited Nevada get-together.
"Totem of Confessions" (2015) by Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti.
"Totem of Confessions" (2015) by Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti. Credit: Michael Holden
The gallery's new exhibition, "No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man," focuses on the artworks flourishing on the "playa" (the Spanish word for beach which, in Burning Man lexicon, refers to the lake beds of Black Rock City).
"Burning Man has a salacious reputation, earned over the years for its excesses," said the show's curator, Nora Atkinson, in a phone interview. "And I think in many ways it's been well earned. But it's so much more than that.
"Really, on (the) playa, you can find anything you want to find, be anyone you want to be. If you want to have a slinky race down a giant staircase to nowhere in the desert, it's there."
Part of what drew Atkinson to the desert event, which this year sold all 26,000 tickets within a half hour, was the artistic divide between America's East and West coasts. In particular, she points to the former's lack of knowledge about "Burners" (people who base their way of life on the principles of Burning Man).
"At the same time, I wanted to give people a real sense of the desert climate and the enormity of it all," she added, "which is essential to understanding the challenge of creating these objects, and how they and the community function."

Art in difficult conditions

In the unforgiving Black Rock City landscape, the process of communal creation can be a challenging one. Temperatures vary from extreme heat to below freezing, and dust storms are as unpredictable as the art itself. Many of the site-specific works have a short lifespan. They're often burned on site, with the iconic wooden effigy known as "the Man" set alight at the festival each year.
"The idea that you would spend months creating something so beautiful and so grand, dedicated to loss and healing, only to burn it at the end of a single week seemed like poetry the world needs," said Atkinson.
"It's amazing to see this kind of supportive creative community at work, and I think so much of the success of Burning Man art -- the way that it has grown in scale and complexity so rapidly in recent years -- comes from that source. Without money at the center of production, artists feel like they have the freedom to take risks, and collaborate, and sometimes fail."

From the desert to DC

Atkinson said that she worked closely with festival organizers to ensure that the exhibition upheld the community's values. But recreating desert art in a pristine, temperature-controlled gallery was never the goal.
"There is no imperative to replicate Burning Man within the exhibition," said Kim Cook, Burning Man's director of art and civic engagement. "In fact, to attempt to do so would be contradictory to the spirit of Burning Man, which celebrates immediacy, the moment, the actual experience of being present for what you are experiencing."
Instead, at the two-story exhibition, visitors (or participants, as there are no "spectators" at Burning Man) learn about the vernacular and tenets of the Burning Man community. The curators also demonstrate how these principles translate into interactive artworks, from sculptures that fill entire rooms to fire installations and VR performances.
The exhibition's ability to play with scale sets it apart from the festival experience. Some of the pieces acquire new dimensions in a museum setting: small-scale projects from the desert become room-size installations at the Renwick Gallery. "The desert has a tendency to fool the eyes," said Atkinson.
Elsewhere, the exhibition hosts a 1:3 scale version of Marco Cochrane's 16-meter tall sculpture, "Truth Is Beauty." And on the second floor, videos show some of the the largest flaming artworks from previous festivals.
"Truth is Beauty" by Marco Cochrane.
"Truth is Beauty" by Marco Cochrane. Credit: Ron Blunt
The desert and gallery experiences both draw on the principles of the Burning Man community, while retaining the idiosyncrasies of these two vastly different settings. Black Rock City provides the perfect stage for people (whether trained artists or not) to build collaborative artworks and express themselves, with the new exhibition being "the outcome of that expression," as Cook put it.
There are no rulebooks dictating what is created at Burning Man, yet there seems to be a unique otherworldly language that ties the festival's art together. For Atkinson, this community is the epitome of what defines craft in the digital age.
"Art and play are essential to the world -- art isn't some secret language, but something that is vital and alive and open to everyone," she said.
"The art is a gift to the community, and as I've heard a few Burners say: If people didn't build it, we'd just be a bunch of people camping in the desert staring at each other."
"No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man," is on display at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum until January 21, 2019.