City of Dust
Burning Man has come a long way since its counterculture roots in the early ’90s. This is both a plain truth and the thesis for the current City of Dust exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art. What’s not so straightforward is exactly how Burning Man evolved from an 80-person beach party in San Francisco to a 70,000-resident metropolis in the Black Rock Desert. City of Dust tries—and mostly succeeds—in filling in the details.
Collaborating with early Burning Man founders, the Burning Man Project, and an archive of over 6,000 objects given to the museum in 2014, lead curator Ann Wolfe has spent the past two years putting together a historical account of the festival.
“We were interested in looking historically at that arc and telling the story through original artifacts—which is what museums do,” Wolfe explained over the phone.
It’s true. The moment you walk into the gallery is the moment you realize that the NMA knew what it was up against—a celebration that is iconic, fiercely personal, and still happening, a perfect recipe for any interpretation to be characterized as a misinterpretation. Sticking to a historical perspective was a good way to go.
Over four rooms and three decades, the exhibit takes you on a loosely chronological journey from Burning Man’s modest beginnings and middle-year growing pains to a probable heroic conclusion that ends on the playa—and continues to have a butterfly effect all over the world.
More than 200 objects are on display, including the Cacophony Society newsletter announcing the very first gathering in the desert, a Black Rock Ranger action figure, a collection of jars containing different yearly “vintages” of burned-Man ashes, several fascinating magazines headlines from the ’90s, a 20-minute documentary and some tasteful nude photographs.
There is an entire section dedicated to city planning documents that deserves its own show. There is a case of playa jewelry you will want to steal off the wall while dressed in the 15-foot diaphanous silk gown that co-founder Crimson Rose wore more than 20 years ago, also in the exhibit. There is a display about the Fly Ranch property that co-founder Michael Mikel mysteriously described as land that will “facilitate Burning Man culture into the future.”
There are a lot of highlights.
If there is a critique to be had of the exhibit, it’s an unfair one. City of Dust does not end up telling the whole story of Burning Man. But really, how can you expect it to?
Mikel, for one, harbors no illusions about the gap between City of Dust and Black Rock City.
“You can see so much of it here [at the exhibit], and people will talk and talk, but you can’t really know what Burning Man is until you experience it.”
It’s worth noting that the very existence of a Burning Man exhibit at a museum could count as further evidence for how different—even antithetical—the festival has become in comparison to its origins. And it’s not only being shown at the NMA—in 2018 it’ll travel to the Smithsonian with the title No Spectators.
“[It is] ironic perhaps,” said Mikel. “But as a scholarly exhibit, I mean, that’s important for people to see and understand stories that the objects tell about Burning Man and about Burning Man history.”
As for humble beginnings?
“I’ve seen [Burning Man] small and tiny. I could pretty much talk to everybody without yelling, and now we have a massive communication system and very large organization. But what is happening now—it’s still the most amazing thing on the planet.”