East City Art Reviews: No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man

By Juliana Biondo on August 8, 2018

Burning Man – The Festival

Ephemeral, self-governing, and creative.  These are some of the hallmarks of what is now a more well-established festival convening thousands of people each year.  It is a community that rises from the dust once a year for a single week in Black Rock City, Nevada, governs itself with just ten rules, and expresses itself with large-scale art installations. It is the community of Burning Man.

Burning Man[1] was born from a decision made by two men, Larry Harvey and Jerry James, in 1986 in Baker Beach, San Francisco to burn a constructed wooden man to see what would happen. This whimsical decision would soon become Burning Man attracting over 70,000 people a year. Harvey and James have called Burning Man “Disneyland in reverse”, “Woodstock turned inside out”, or “anything you want it to be.” Their aim was to create a world all its own.[2]

Reacting to the intense immediacy with which people gathered towards the burning wooden man on Baker Beach in 1986, the two men wanted to continue creating an opportunity for such an instantaneous community to generate itself. Within a mere two years, the act of burning a wooden man became an organized and advertised event. The wooden man itself grew in size – the first year it was eight feet tall, the next year fifteen feet, and the next thirty. In 1989, the gatherings known as “beach burns,” attracted the Cacophony Society. The Cacophony Society is considered an offshoot of the Dada movement and the Situationists, a group of avant-garde artists, intellectuals, and political theorists in Europe active from the fifties through the seventies. The Society set out to bring together free spirits who were in pursuit of those experiences that went beyond mundane mainstream society. Their association with Burning Man was a turning point in the ethos of the artistic act.   It now adopted a more intensely social-movement component. It was becoming the Burning Man phenomenon as we understand it today.

As Burning Man grew in size and influence, it soon became synonymous with a celebration of free and unbridled self-expression. This, in turn, produced a rich and productive scene for makers and craft. These craftspeople and makers were not deemed artists in the traditional sense, but rather human beings embracing their innate ability to be able to say and create things.


Burning Man – The Visual Art

Given its origins, it is somewhat curious that the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum –-a part of the Smithsonian Institutions administered by the federal government — is pioneering the curation and exhibition of art produced by this grass-roots, unwieldy and wild cultural phenomenon. The Renwick Gallery is the first to present under one roof, or any roof for that matter, works of art coming out of Burning Man; a clear reversal of one of the foundational engines of the festival. Harvey and James, and later, the Cacophony Society, intended to model the event away from the mainstream. From this perspective, an intense paradox is seen: does the process of defining, explaining, and organizing along certain narrative lines (curating), works of art produced during Burning Man delete the very spirit of these products – to be beacons of absolutely free and whimsical expression, unburdened by societal definitions?

Let’s look at some of the works included in this exhibition. Walking up the central staircase of the Renwick Gallery, visitors are enticed by Temple, a piece by David Best and the Temple Crew. The work consumes the senses – the perfection of the woodwork emits a luscious splendor that draws one in for a considered look; the grandiosity of the space generates a palpable yet inexplicable sense of awe; the patterns wrap one into a rhythm that all but syncopates one’s very breathing. This installation creates an energy of other-worldliness that only comes when immense care is given, attention paid, and mastery of medium achieved. The effect of the Temple ignites a spiritual response. This work also asks for audience participation. Viewers are invited to further adorn the work with memorials and inscriptions. At the Temple, one can read various individuals’ words, wishes, hopes, fears, and thoughts scattered throughout the wooden walls. In the context of Burning Man, this temple would have been burned at the completion of the festival, to inspire a cathartic cleansing feeling intended to induce communal healing. The grandiose nature of this work, combined with its status as a holder of communal hopes and dreams, and contrasted by its intended ephemerality, makes one interpret it as both a memorial to humanity and an inconsequential artefact of a single lone group of people. The concept of the Temple Crew’s pieces poses a question: what matters more, the process or the product?

David Best and the Temple Crew, Temple, 2018. Photo by Ron Blunt.


David Best and the Temple Crew, Temple (detail), 2018. Photo by Ron Blunt.


Moving onwards throughout the Renwick, one confronts a larger-than-life stainless-steel mesh sculpture of a female nude called Truth is Beauty. Standing tall at eighteen feet, this sculpture is just one third of what it originally was (fifty five feet) when it was created for the Burning Man Festival in 2013. Looking up at the figure, with its twisting, stretching body seeming to yearn for impossible heights, one feels a sense of boundless exuberance. The weighty presence that the sculpture maintains is doubly impressive as its medium – wire mesh – could have so easily projected a feeling of flimsy, quasi-invisibility. Maker Marco Cochrane expertly constructed a figure that, in his words, portrays the “feminine energy and power that results when women feel free and safe.” Bringing the piece into the socio-political realm, the base of the sculpture reads What Would The World Be Like if Women Were Safe? The maker questions a hard-hitting, widely discussed, topic of our time, and use the visual to hint at one potential answer to that question.

Marco Cochrane, Truth Is Beauty, 2018. Photo by Ron Blunt.


Descending to the ground floor, visitors come across a work called Before I Die by Candy Chang.  The artist has presented viewers with a black chalkboard with blank spaces for them to pick up colorful pieces of chalk, and write in comments to the question the artist poses. While writing, viewers can see what others have recorded, coming across responses ranging from the silly, to the sentimental, and the philosophical to the practical. Before I Die invites viewers to interact with the work just as Temple does – by asking that an internal thought to be made external for the world to see. Other works such as Shrumen Lumen also invite engagement, but in a different way. Instead of words, this group of lighted structures forces the viewer to get physically close, unusually close in fact considering the traditional distance artworks in museums normally require, to active their movement. Upon stepping within just inches from the trunk of the structures, the circular toppers begin to expand and contract, crinkling and crunching as they go. The viewers’ new vantage point is then directly underneath the sculpture, so close that all they can do is look up and feel consumed by this unexpected expansion.  The maker, FoldHaus Art Collective, manipulates viewers’ experience by dictating the way they have to place themselves in order to access the “shrums” at their maximum.

Candy Chang, Before I Die (detail), 2011, New Orleans, LA. Image courtesy of the artist.


FoldHaus, Shrumen Lumen, 2016. Photo by Ron Blunt.


Throughout the Golden Triangle BID neighborhood, one can find an additional six sculptures that are a part of the exhibition. One large steel piece, XOXO, by Laura Kimpton, greets passersby at the 18th street entrance to Farragut West. Larger than life, these sculptures have become mini-monuments: colloquially used as a way to identify a meeting point, becoming part of a collective memory. For this work, Kimpton laser cut small birds out of the steel structures creating a repetitive pattern that the artist used to symbolize a desired freedom from words and thought. The XO shape makes reference to hugs and kisses, or love, another form of idealistic freedom. While this piece makes a nod to a larger artistic ideal, its value remains most squarely as a cheerful monument for the public.

Laura Kimpton, XOXO, 2017. Photo by Jeff Song.


All of these modes of engagement with the artworks in the exhibition are intriguing – reading, writing, adding, and moving – and they tend towards the sensational. Viewers are not purely contemplating but instead mainly playing. The exhibition moves somewhat abruptly between engaging the audience in considered, quasi-spiritual viewings of expertly crafted objects, and playful interactive promotions that seem to attempt to make larger comments on social issues such as gender equality, personal fulfillment, or the artistic ideal of freedom. This fluctuation feels like a naïve attempt for a “counter-culture” to render itself accessible, through its objects, to individuals rooted in the mainstream. Or, it feels like a way to revolutionize the museum space, a socially constructed institution intended to give value to certain objects over others, by displaying “unconventional” objects by individuals who are not necessarily self-identifying as artists. Or further yet, the fluctuation between the playful and the serious allows the curatorial voice to side step any formal critical analysis of the objects by instead focusing on the cultural phenomenon that created them.

By inviting viewers to interact with the objects, to go beyond their status as spectators and to shape the objects’ meaning through play and engagement, the makers of the Burning Man exhibit attempt to remove all barriers to entry and invite all who wish to join in the process of creativity, to do so. Yet, how then are the viewers able to move beyond the mental noise involved in participating and making, to arrive at a place of quiet observation? In re-contextualizing Burning Man into a mainstream museum space but greatly minimizing a mainstay of that space—a healthy barrier of awe generated by quiet contemplation and curatorial narrative—how does the value of the works then change? The works retain their ephemeral and playful energy over the viewer. However, this intense energy clouds a clear curatorial narrative, perhaps ultimately thwarting viewers from actually learning how to create a way of living outside the very mainstream the works are meant to break in the first place.

[1] https://burningman.org/

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/larry-harvey-philosophical-force-behind-burning-man-festival-dies-at-70/2018/04/29/109756a6-4bb7-11e8-84a0-458a1aa9ac0a_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.b2e53678b73e


 Now on view in the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum is the exhibition, No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man. The exhibition also includes a collection of public sculptures placed throughout the Golden Triangle BID on view through December 2018.  For more information visit: americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/burning-man

The exhibition in the Renwick Gallery will close in two phases:

Works by Candy Chang, Marco Cochrane, Duane Flatmo, Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti, Five Ton Crane Arts Collective, Scott Froschauer, Android Jones, and Richard Wilks will be on view through September 16, 2018.

Works by David Best, FoldHaus Art Collective, Aaron Taylor Kuffner, HYBYCOZO (Yelena Filipchuk and Serge Beaulieu), Christopher Schardt, and Leo Villareal will remain on view through January 21, 2019.