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The Smithsonian’s Burning Man exhibition is in Oakland—as close as it’ll get to Reno
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 mid February.
I approached the show with a question: What does it mean to contextualize a genre of art that is inherently anti-institutional—and often straight-up anarchic—inside a museum? The playa and the museum exist in two separate art worlds. One is a world of art schools, museums, galleries, auctions and sales. The other is an arena of non-academic DIY types, everyone from entry-level crafters to people with makerspace memberships to successful visionaries and masters of engineering, and the mecca of this second world is Burning Man. 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 have conferring its approval on Burner art? I entered the Oakland Museum prepared to do some heavy-duty eye rolling.
Long story short, I left two hours later, thrilled with what I had seen. Nora Atkinson, the Smithsonian curator who organized the show, said in a TED Talk, “Burning Man is all about building this society that you want to live in, and that's what this exhibition is about.” This particular assortment of exuberant, interactive artworks makes that case loud and clear.
Feel the burn
As a Burner myself, and I have quaffed a hearty slurp of this cult's Kool-Aid—though I acknowledge that the event's detractors make some sound points. One of the most pressing is the disconnect between Burning Man's widely flaunted principle of “radical inclusion” and the actual level of exclusivity involved in the whole affair. Ben Davis, a critic for Artnet, distilled it neatly: “The truth is that, as the festival has become more of a playground for fashion influencers, celebrities, the jet-setting uber-wealthy, and would-be versions of all three, it has become more self-conscious and scene-y, easier to deride as an ‘Instagram Party.'”
I'm no Instagram star or mega-rich Silicon Valley tech bro myself, but that Kool-Aid sure tastes good to me, and here's why: For all its contradictions, the event really does lay some groundwork for a model of a different type inclusion.
Sometimes art really does get to the creamy middle of what we're all about. Sometimes it really does fill a basic human need. 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, our visions for a more socially stable world—and to somehow articulate all that with compassion and clarity, 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, because it grew up outside of the official “art market,” can be a particularly effective one.
If you go to Burning Man, you'll see some artworks that are so ambitious and life-affirming it's hard to believe they exist. By the time you're standing on the playa taking in a giant piece of blinking, moving, flame-spewing, interactive, optical-illusionary art, you've cleared pretty some weird hurdles and embraced some nerve-testing inconveniences to reach it. Somehow, you decided this whole affair is important enough that you'll part with the $425 ticket price, take time off from work and pack a week's worth of food and water and silly clothing into a vehicle that you will spend two weeks washing once you get home. There's a good chance you traveled far to begin with, then idled for half a day in the gate line. If you worked on an art project, you probably spent a week or a summer putting in shifts so long they'd give an OSHA inspector a heart attack, and you haven't been paid a cent. It's probably been 100 degrees for days. You haven't bought or sold anything or or gotten cell service in days. Your lips have turned to sandpaper. Every pore in your body is packed with talcum-grade dust. You may have had LSD for breakfast—or at least some cocktails—and gotten lost for hours on the way to … wait, where were you trying to get to again? And by the time you come across this one giant mind-blowing piece of blinking, moving, flame-spewing, interactive, optical-illusory artwork, you've already inspected dozens or hundreds of pieces at the event that were unfinished, uninspired or just plain hokey.
Despite all the dust and hassle, this moment feels like enough of a privilege that 80,000 people do it every year—and they're not all Instagram stars or Silicon Valley tech bros. Some are backpackers from the world over. Some are families. Some are the mayor of Reno.
And people of all of these demographic have reported finding themselves standing in the sunshine, not only dazzled by spectacle, but thinking something along the lines of, “This seems bizarrely normal. This is what I should be doing with my time. This feels like a legitimate win for humanity.”
On the day I visited No Spectators in Oakland last week, 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 “oohs,” “aahs” and “wows,” and I saw, for the first time in my life, museum guards who did not look bored.
Curator Nora Atkinson—who, in work pictures, looks like she descended from the Kennedys, all poise and pearls, and in her Burning Man pics is a tousled blond in a sequined halter, ready to rave—also said in her 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.”
The works in No Spectators were indeed marvelous toys, and people were eager to play with them. A group of Chinese grandmas sat down 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 lied on cushions on the floor to gaze up at “Nova,” a trippy, meditative light show on the ceiling. And people sat in rows of plush movie theater seats on a steampunk/Art Deco bus-like vehicle called “Capitol Theater,” watching newly created Chaplinesque silent comedies projected on a screen. But these weren't just marvelous toys. They're also a tightly selected group of art pieces that really do articulate that sense of intense wonder—and that sense of community—that people go to Burning Man for.