‘Marvelous toys’

The Smithsonian’s Burning Man exhibition travels out west

“Tin Pan Dragon” (2006) by Duane Flatmo

“Tin Pan Dragon” (2006) by Duane Flatmo

Photo courtesy of Oakland Museum of California

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man shows through Feb. 16.
Oakland Museum of California
1000 Oak St.

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man opened at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in March 2018, stopped at the Cincinnati Art Museum, and is now at its only West Coast venue, the Oakland Museum of California, through Feb. 16.

I approached the show with a burning question: What does it mean to contextualize art that is inherently anti-institutional—and often straight-up anarchic—inside a museum?

Museum art and Burning Man art exist in two separate worlds. One is an arena of art schools, galleries, auctions and sales. The other is a world of DIY-ers, everyone from entry-level crafters to successful visionaries and engineers. These two worlds have some crossover, but less than you might guess. They’re really playing two different games on two different fields, with two different sets of rules. So, what business would the Smithsonian, a federal-government-run institution, have conferring its approval on art made for a big party in the desert?

Nora Atkinson, the Smithsonian curator who organized the show, became a Burner in recent years, and if her social media pics are any indication, she seems taken with the event’s magic. In work pictures, she looks like she descended from the Kennedys, all poise and pearls, and in her Burning Man pics she’s a tousled blond in a sequined halter, ready to rave. She made this point in a TED Talk: “When artists stop worrying about the critics and collectors and start making work for themselves, these are the kinds of marvelous toys they create.”

As a Burner myself, I have quaffed a hearty slurp of this cult’s Kool-Aid—though I acknowledge that the event’s detractors make some sound points, like the disconnect between Burning Man’s widely flaunted claim of “radical inclusion” and the actual level of economic exclusivity involved in the whole pricey affair.

But for all its contradictions, the event does accomplish some things that make me hesitate to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Sometimes art really does get to the true creamy middle of what we’re all about.

Sources from Fox News to The New York Times to Web MD have proclaimed that modern humans are in the midst of a loneliness epidemic that affects our psyches, our health and our communities in ways that we have no idea how to fix. In my mind, one part of the solution is to show each other our humanity, our dreams, our efforts, our accomplishments—and to somehow articulate all that clearly, both to our immediate peers and to people outside our own respective bubbles. But that’s hard to do after a long day’s work. So, it helps to have some structures for it. Sports is one. Church is one. Music is one. Art is another one. And Burner art can be a particularly effective one because it’s beholden more to viewers’ experience more than it is to markets or institutions.

On the day I visited No Spectators in Oakland, the gallery was packed—mostly with well-dressed people in their 60s and 70s, a few Gen-Xers, and a handful of kids and teens. I heard a quiet chorus of “ooh”s, “aah”s and “wow”s, and I saw, for the first time in my life, museum guards who did not look bored. A group of Chinese grandmas sat at a table to make origami “gifts,” to be distributed to other museumgoers, who were lined up at the “Gift-o-Matic,” an oversized gumball machine that dispenses the handmade trinkets. Boomers in clean Patagonia separates lay on cushions on the floor to gaze up at “Nova,” a trippy, meditative light show on the ceiling. And people climbed aboard a steampunk/art deco bus-like vehicle called “Capitol Theater,” to sit in rows of velvet seats and watch Chaplinesque silent comedies projected on a screen.

These “marvelous toys” really do articulate that sense of intense wonder—and that sense of community—that people go to Burning Man for. And, in my mind, the potentially fraught mark of institutional approval worked out just fine. Atkinson distilled some of the most accessible, more socially practical parts of Burning Man into an afternoon’s worth of substantial marveling, and brought them on tour.