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.
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.