Temple of Mazu
The cacophony from a chop saw, a metal grinder and competing boom boxes at the Generator were louder than usual one recent evening. There were lumber stacks to navigate around and sparks flying as builders carried sections of wooden decking and sculptors welded steel dragons, all sure signs that it’s Burning Man build season.
Chris Hankins, better known as Kiwi—he’s from New Zealand—took a break to explain his team’s project, the Temple of Mazu.
Mazu, pronounced “Matsu,” is the Taiwanese goddess of travel and the sea.
“She’s just a really sweet person, like a mother or a sister or an auntie that you go to, not like a god that you bow down to,” said Kiwi. “People recognize her straight away. A hundred million people adore her. She’s the goddess of the empty sea, she makes sure everybody comes home from their busy day so all the fishermen could be guided into the harbor.” Stone and wood temples are built in her honor all over Asia and in the Chinatowns of Los Angeles and San Francisco, often with statues and intricate carvings.
Kiwi and his team, a newly formed LLC called The Department of Public Arts, are constructing a modern version, largely built of steel and plywood, with Burner flourishes aplenty. This one is a pagoda-like structure with eight metal dragons perched on the roof. Plans are underway to encircle the temple with 108 intricate lanterns and decorate it with plastic guard statues, currently on order from Taiwan. The crowning detail is a giant pink lotus flower atop the structure. The petals, Kiwi explained, each have “a steel sub-frame looks like a boat,” covered with curved plywood and painted for a plastic-like look. “We cut slits in the plywood so it bends easy,” he said.
Kiwi traced the idea of making a Mazu temple for the playa back to an artist named Gordon Tsai. He directs an arts community and residency program in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital city, called the Dream Community, where boisterous parades, body-painted dancers and fire-breathing art cars look like close cousins to much of the work at Burning Man.
In the name of research, Tsai attends art festivals worldwide. A few years back, he made a stop at the Burn. Naturally, one connection led to another, and Mazu, being a beloved protector of adventurers, seemed a natural fit for the playa. Charlie Ewan came up with the concept, and Nathan Parker designed the structure. Kiwi took on a foreman role. He’d already put in 25 years as a neon artist and sign maker in New Zealand and led the efforts on ambitious playa projects such as Megatropolis in 2010 and the Temple of Transition in 2011.
“I was lucky enough to learn a whole lot of skills,” he said.
Each year, Burning Man designates an official temple, a structure that acquires a non-denominational spiritual air. People leave mementos inside or write messages to deceased friends, and the structure burns in a quiet, reverent ceremony on the last night on the event. The Temple of Mazu is not the official temple this year. That title goes to the Temple of Promise, a spiral-shaped structure with a 100-foot arched entryway, being built in Alameda, California, by a group called the Dreamers Guild.
Nonetheless, the Reno group’s project will serve a similar role. Organizers plan for it to be the site of events such as yoga gatherings and parades, in which a likeness of Mazu will be carried around on bamboo supports. The life of the Temple of Mazu will culminate in a pyrotechnic event—this one involving fireworks.