It’s strange, but exciting, to see the Mutant Vehicles of Burning Man in the rarefied air of the National Automobile Museum

photo by amy beck

Mutant Vehicles is on display at the National Auto Museum, 10 S. Lake St., through July 25. For more information, visit www.automuseum.org.

The National Automobile Museum has a crispness to it that scarcely exists in the outside world. This, of course, is intentional. Most museums maintain a similar unreal quality. Museums are the ultimate vehicles of escape. We go to them to forget about the world outside, and once we cross the threshold, that world disappears.

But the National Automobile Museum is different in the sense that it tries to recreate the real world. The hallways are structured to resemble city streets, and as you move through the museum, you are reciprocally progressing through time. But, unlike the real world, everything is manufactured and immaculate. Even the car garage, in which you can hear the recorded ambient noise of a wrench banging against metal, is spotless. You get the feeling that you are on the back lot of a movie studio, or perhaps on a movie set itself, and it’s even hard to tell whether the woman who’s been sitting on the bench for five minutes is a real person or a wax figure.

This is perhaps what makes the newest exhibition of Mutant Vehicles from the Burning Man festival—which runs until July 25—so strange. Suddenly, as you turn the corner from 1950’s Street onto Modern Street, amid the retro street signs and marquees, there they are almost frighteningly aligned like strange surreal war tanks. In five shorts steps, you go from the set of Back to the Future to the set of Mad Max.

Intensive car unit

The executive director of the National Automobile Museum, Jackie Frady, says the earliest cars were conceived and constructed with the same type of creative ingenuity used in the manufacturing of this collection of eight Art Cars and Mutant Vehicles.

“[The first cars] had to be such an oddity at the time, but that was someone’s individual impression of what they thought transportation to be,” says Frady. “They weren’t large manufacturing companies. It was someone tinkering in a shed in their backyard building the first cars. So, to us it is just part of that interpretation of transportation and the automobile.”

Just as with the collection of cars in the museum, Frady explains, she wanted the examples in this exhibit to reflect the historical evolution of the vehicles of Burning Man, from the days of the first Art Cars to the conception and evolution of the Mutant Vehicle.

She explains that Mutant Vehicles are technically a subgroup of Art Cars, but how they differ is that Art Cars are simply or ornately decorated with temporary pieces of art. But Mutant Vehicles are either made from scratch, or in no way resemble the original vehicle from which they were constructed.

“They should be so intricately designed that you can’t even tell what it started out as,” she says.

A good example of this from the exhibit is the monolithic, almost tank-like, vehicle called Boss Hog. Apparently, it was constructed from an old Volvo, but you could never tell by looking at it. The vehicle is now an armored truck with tusks and eyes that light up a menacing bright red, and is impressive by its sheer size and magnitude.

Jackie Frady, executive director of the Harrah Collection at the National Automobile Museum, poses on the Couch Potato in the Burning Man Mutant Vehicles exhibit.

photo by amy beck

But, the goal of the Mutant Vehicles is to reinterpret the idea of what we would consider a form of transportation. Some of them don’t seem like they would be functional necessarily, like one in which the driver sits inside a polygonal frame constructed in the shape of a human head, whose eyeballs function as headlights.

Others still teeter on the side of comic surrealism, like a pair of go-carts redesigned to resemble hot pink bunny slippers.

One in particular is made from an object that is usually associated with immobility. A piece called Couch Potato uses a couch as the seats for the vehicle, which is imbedded in a giant potato. While the observer takes delight in simply viewing the vehicle, there is the certitude that constructing something like this must have taken hard work and couldn’t have been constructed by couch potatoes.

But, for the museum, and Frady, no vehicle can be too bizarre or silly.

“We look at transportation, anything on four wheels and two wheels, to be an important topic, and particularly the way people like to personally interpret their cars,” she says.

Auto erotic

The National Automobile Museum brought in a guest curator for the exhibition, documentary filmmaker and Art Car enthusiast Harrod Blank. Though the exhibition represents the many vehicles at Burning Man, some are just too big to fit in the museum.

To give an impression of those types of Mutant Vehicles, the museum included a collection of photographs of different vehicles that have appeared at the Burning Man Festival over the years. The pictures represent all types and sizes of vehicles, and some are clearly gargantuan. One is a bus converted into a pirate ship.

Though the exhibit features a bit of history and background in the genres of Art Cars and Mutant Vehicles and explains the difference between the two, Frady says planners wanted the vehicles to speak for themselves.

“We purposefully left off labels,” she says. “It’s really for someone to interpret them on their own.”

This sentiment represents the ethos of Burning Man, which operates like a kinetic, almost living, museum. Viewed from this perspective, it’s now easy to see why these freakish vehicles should also have a place in this idyllic landscape of Americana and nostalgia.

It’s not just that Burning Man has becomes such an accepted part of the culture and especially of this community. Though the approaches may differ, the goals of Burning Man and this museum are actually the same. Some veterans of Burning Man will tell you that the playa is the real world, and this “default world” is the fantasy. Whether or not that’s the case, the reality is that just like a museum, where we display works of art that represent the very best of human creativity and ingenuity for the public to view, we wish them to be not just representations of the best of the human spirit, but a reflection of it.