Fire in the sky
What were the most memorable works of art at Burning Man this year?
In 2007, I wrote a story titled “10 Things I Hate about Burning Man.” Because of that, many of my friends and acquaintances assume that I hate Burning Man. That’s probably a reasonable deduction, but not wholly accurate. There are indeed at least 10 things that I genuinely hate about Burning Man—bike thieves, perverts, dirty Porta Potties, crappy techno, dust storms and participation snobs are just a few of the things I touched on in my 2007 piece. That said, there’s nowhere on the planet that I’d rather be during the week before Labor Day.
There’s a music analogy that sort of sums up my feelings about Burning Man. There are bands I don’t like. So I don’t listen to them. But then there are bands that I like, but I don’t like some of their songs. (“The Long and Winding Road” by The Beatles is an easy example.) The songs I don’t like by the bands I otherwise like are far more irritating to me than the whole catalogs of bands I dislike enough to ignore. This is because I have to skip them if I listen to the CD, or delete them from my iPod, and then I feel embarrassed when the band plays those songs in concert. If you dislike something, it’s easy enough to be disinterested. But if you love something, it’s really easy for the pet peeves to turn to hate. (I think many of us have experienced that sensation during romantic relationships.)
Burning Man is like a great band with a lot of shitty songs. But even though the worst clichés about Burning Man are all true, it’s still awesome. And it’s hard to pinpoint why. It’s much easier to point out the myriad flaws of the event. But there’s just something about the combination of inhospitable conditions, unhinged expression and great balls of fire that makes for a life-affirming event. It distills people down to their essence. After a trip to Burning Man with someone, you’ll either be friends for life, or you’ll never talk again.
The accidental tourist
This year, I wanted to focus on the art. Burning Man, after all, is one of the largest art exhibitions in the world. I arranged in advance to attend an art tour conducted by the ARTery, Burning Man’s official art organization. The tours are available, with tickets, to all citizens of Black Rock City, and this year they were conducted in one of those red, double-decker Routemaster buses that are often associated with the city of London. Our tour started at 11 a.m., and it was hot as sin down in the bowels of the lower deck, but our tour guide, Mark Maser, did his best with the sometimes awkward scripts used to describe the artwork.
It’s a little strange to see the artwork in such an officious, formal way. In years previous, I’ve seen the playa artwork the way that most folks do, by riding up on my bike, usually at night, usually inebriated. Viewing the art by tour bus was a bit like bumping into a bong-ripping college roommate wearing a tie on his way to a job interview.
There were some nice pieces. The Flaming Lotus Girls’ “Soma” was an exciting, interactive sculpture—a giant neuron made of fire and steel with hand pumps to launch the flames. But overall, I’d say that the art this year was weaker than in previous years. (In 2007, the year of my “Hate” story, I complained about the art, but there were actually a half dozen works I really liked.) “Keynote” was another cool piece—a sculpture of a man made of locks and dragging a giant key—but it probably would’ve been just as effective, if not more so, in a traditional gallery setting.
The most exciting pieces of Burning Man artwork, the ones that are the talk of town all over BRC, the ones that people still talk about years later, are the ones that uniquely incorporate the playa itself. They’re also usually large pieces. If you went in 2006, you probably had a few conversations about the “Belgian Waffle,” the cavernous structure, made of two-by-fours, that was home to some of that year’s best dance parties. It was actually titled “Uchronia,” but nobody called it that.
In 2007, everyone talked about “Big Rig Jig,” the semi trucks that looked like they were dancing, and “Crude Awakening,” the giant oil derrick.
I didn’t go to the festival last year so I have no idea what people were talking about then.Rocket science
If there was one piece of artwork that dominated conversation this year it was “Raygun Gothic Rocketship,” a kitschy, retro-futuristic 40-foot rocket that looked like something out of a Jules Verne movie adaptation circa 1957. The excitement about the piece was centered on its scheduled “launch” set for Friday night. Debate about this “rocket launch” raged throughout BRC:
“It’s a joke. There’s no way they’re getting that thing off the ground.”
“I heard they’re only hoping to get it up four or five feet.”
“If they actually try to launch that thing, I’m sure it’ll fail miserably.”
“They’re probably just going to blow it up.”
“Well, whatever happens, I’m sure it’ll be cool.”
So my campmates and I, along with a big chunk of the rest of BRC, headed out to the rocket launch on Friday night. Then there was a lot of waiting, punctuated by occasional announcements. (Waiting, with announcements—it’s like a trip to the doctor’s office.) The announcements were sort-of-funny-but-not-really mission control gibberish—stuff like, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Launch in T-minus 10 minutes … confirm astronaut helmets secure … alpha mike bravo … activate preliminary blue strobe check lights.”
When the countdown reached 10 seconds, the crowd, of course, joined in like it was New Year’s Eve, and then after “One!” there was a very impressive fireworks display—easily one of the best fireworks displays I’ve ever seen, full of bright colors, spiraling shapes and explosions of blue flame, accompanied by the voice through the PA announcing, “Black Rock, we have problem.”
But a fireworks display, no matter how impressive, does not a rocket launch make.
I overheard many voices in the crowd complaining that they felt suckered, like the “rocket launch” had been some kind of con (a con to what end?). I felt naïve for even considering the possibility that a launch had been possible.Hostile environment
Over the course of the week, the numbers and membership at our camp had changed. I think we maxed out at nine people on Friday, but by Saturday night, we were down to just four: me, my fiancée, Sara, and our friends Mark and Chris. Saturday, during the day, we made plans to meet up with some of our other friends before the burning of The Man that night. We said we’d meet at 9 p.m. at the rocket.
’Round about 8:30 p.m. or so, we got geared up, got on our bikes, and rode out into some of the worst playa conditions I’ve ever encountered. The wind was making it difficult to ride and kicking up the dust into a near total white-out. Visibility must’ve only been about a foot and a half. We reached the esplanade, and couldn’t see anything out on the open playa.
We briefly considered heading back to camp. But we are neither cowards nor people who like to flake on our friends, so we decided we’d head out to the rocket to make our appointment. We thought it might be easier without the bikes, so we locked them up together near an easy-to-find street sign and started the trek.
It was slow-going, dusty and eerie—it felt a bit like walking on some distant, hostile planet, and all the more so because we were looking for a rocket. But with some inspired navigating, we were able to make it there, and despite the conditions, we were only about 10 minutes late.
We waited. It felt remote and desolate and quieter than I can ever remember the usually techno-popping nighttime BRC.
While we waited, we had time to inspect the rocket. Its fins were made out of some wobbly, surprisingly flimsy material. It felt like plastic, but might have been very thin sheet metal. Nobody who had interacted with this piece of artwork the way it ought to have been interacted with—up close and personal, touching it, climbing on it—would ever for a minute believe that it was intended to be launched. The rocket launch was not a bamboozle, but a cheeky joke that anyone paying attention would’ve been in on.
It reinforced my opinion that a tour bus is not the ideal way to view the art of Burning Man. Before the launch, I’d only ever seen the piece from a distance and out of a bus window. Burning Man has a way of convincing you that many strange things are possible, but if I’d gone up and looked at the rocket by bicycle or on foot before the “launch,” I would have known it was a sculpture to be climbed on and in and not a possibly functioning piece of low-range pseudo-spaceware. (I never believed it would fly to space, but thought the “four or five feet” rumor might’ve been true.)
Then the most amazing thing happened. After inspecting the rocket, I turned around and saw, a couple hundred yards away, The Man, lit up with light blue neon and arms raised, surrounded by illuminated art cars. A moment before there had been zero visibility, and then suddenly a congregation appeared in heated, near reverential anticipation. I don’t know if the conditions just suddenly improved or if there had been some coordinated effort to turn on all the lights at once—and I don’t want to know; it was mysterious and wonderful.
We waited a few minutes longer before giving up on our friends and moving in closer to The Man. After joining the congregation, I looked around and saw the nearly full moon above us.
“I’m amazed at how clear it’s gotten,” I said.
“It’s even clearer than you think,” responded Mark. “Take off your goggles.”
My goggles had become caked in sweat and dust, so the revelation of clarity when I took them off was astounding.
“I love Burning Man,” was all I could think to say.
The Man this year was built atop a large, irregular wooden structure, mostly triangular in shape, with crests and falls in the shape of the structure as it seemed to roll in a series of waves around The Man’s feet. He wore a neon belt buckle shaped like a monkey. (The theme this year was “Evolution: A Tangled Bank.”) After building more anticipation and drawing the rest of the crowd with fire dancers and a loose, sloppy marching band, the man exploded in fireworks, and the base went up in flames—and only after it caught fire did it occur to me that the base was like a giant nest, now a nest of flames. It took a long time for the man to burn all the way down. It occurred to me then that new, unusual artworks, like the rocket, might be flashy and make for great conversation pieces, but no matter what, the most important piece of artwork at Burning Man every year is, and always will be, the event’s centerpiece and namesake, The Man.