Art in the dust
e“For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:19 This could be a good description of Burning Man - a festival that takes place every year year in Nevada, for the 31 years already.
It's a festival where non commercialism and nine more principles make up its core. I’ve decided to write this blog entry after my first visit there. The way participants are encouraged to be a part of a greater cause, to be more social, helpful and not judgmental of other people's choices, combined with the complete lack of commercialism, contradicts the contemporary competitive american lifestyle. That is in my opinion, one of the main festival’s appealing factors. Another principle which I found very easy to relate to is called ‘Leave no trace’, or as the locals call it LNT. The basic idea is to encourage self responsibility. Everybody should make sure they leave nothing behind. By the time the festival is over, the desert goes back to what it was before. Almost no trace of human activity is left behind. This takes place every year.
I am sure that many philosophers, psychologists and anthropologists have written many essays about this Burning Man phenomena, which also takes place in other countries worldwide.
I would like to write about the art and aesthetics point of view.
A major activity that Burning Man is based on is the creation of bizarre, and sometimes bigger than life art masterpieces. I will not go through the history of Burning Man, as some of it (at least the early years) is based on rumors. I prefer to write based on my own experience from my visit this year - 2017.
There are two main artworks that are built every year - the man and the temple.
The man, usually a 40 feet high statue, is erected in the exact center of the festival. Behind it, is the temple. While the man’s shape is always the same, the temple is a different architectural masterpiece every year. Both of them are burned at the end of the festival which is a week long.
The area where all the art installations are located is called the ‘playa’. The playa is partly surrounded by the ‘city’ which is designed in a circular shape. The shape of the entire festival is a real piece of work. Especially when seen from an airplane. It's circular shape shape, divided by crossing streets, reminds me of mystical ancient forms like those that were used in the ancient times as calendars and places for pagan rituals. The city and the playa are huge. Most people use bicycles to move around.
Unlike a museum or a gallery, all the art pieces on the playa are exposed to the elements. During the day it's usually sunny (besides dust storms that engulf everything with thick clouds of dust). During the night it's pitch dark (besides the city 's artificial lights). It is important for the artists and designers to address those issues. How their work will be perceived by spectators during different times of the day. It is very common for most of the works to incorporate lights. Usually powerful LEDs. Some of them incorporate physical mechanisms.
Since playa is so dusty, it is constantly covered by a one or two meters high layer of floating dust particles which in turn give it a mystical appearance. However, during the night, when the weather allows many people to go out from their sun hideouts, the playa looks at its best. Its enormous size, combined with the lights coming out of the artworks, cars, people and their bicycles, turn it into a place that does not exist anywhere on earth during that week.
It's a place with constant movement. A place with no borders - meaning there are no fences or barriers of any kind. Everything takes place on this flat ground. Everything is accessible.
I came to Burning man, after applying for an art grant. I did not receive it, but as a nice token of interest in my work, I was gifted with two tickets. I was asked by the art dept. to come and experience Burning Man with my own eyes. And yes. It is funny for me to realize how I imagined it, compared to how I experienced it. In some ways I was right and in some ways I wall way off. First of all, the sheer size is overwhelming. It's the size of the place itself and the artworks. One aspect that was for me a source of a slight disappointment was the sound pollution. The playa is very noisy during the night. The sound comes from huge dance floors and countless vehicles which which are sometimes full size trucks loaded with powerful sound systems. There is no real quiet place there. This constant noise, makes the place a bit cheap. Dark and quiet places exist only on the other side of the city.
When artworks are offered to Burning man, they should meet criteria which some of them are unique. From addressing the safety visibility during the night, their look during the day, interactivity, and how they should be removed at the end of the festival. Artists and designers send their responses for those demands in some very interesting forms or artworks.
A very interesting artwork was ‘Charon’ by Peter Hudson. This one was originally created in 2011, and I think it answered the demands very well. It a big heavy wheel with repeating statues of a skeleton in different positions. Like a zoetrope, it created the illusion of the skeleton rowing a boat on an imaginary river of souls. There are also hands coming in and out of the water on which it sails. To run this wheel, 12 people have to cooperate by pulling massive ropes. A blinking lamp causes the illusion of the movement. Sometimes a big bell would ring. This massive art piece is a fine example of bizarre and impressive artwork that require the participation of the spectators.
Another very impressive artwork was 'the Tree of Ténéré' by Zachary Smith. It was a full scale tree where all its leaves were emitting light using internal LEDs. Every leaf was individually controlled which allowed it to change the light volume and its color. This tree was a beautiful thing to observe during the night and also during dusk. Especially during dusk, the light sequences it created gave the illusion that it's subjected to an external light source like a time lapsed sun movement. This artwork also included sensors that would cause the leaves to emit light according to the sound and motion around it. However, like in some cases I have experienced as an observer and an artist, the interaction was not notable. It seemed like the tree had its own random sequence that operated the lights. This can be a fine case study on how to approach interactive art installation, and how spectators interact with them, if at all.
Next to it, was a polygonized skull that received mapped video projections from three sources. It was called Shogyo Mujo, by Joshua Harker & BARTKRESA design. The beauty of this artwork was the ability of the artists to bring life and constantly changing soft amorphous shapes to this simplified 3D polygon. By projecting different styles of animation sequences, the artists created a few artworks by using only one object. I think it was an impressive and unique achievement.
A complete different artwork was 'Ursa Major' by Lisa and Robert Ferguson. It was a few meters high statue of a bear and her two cubs. It was made out of a polystyrene core, coated with a layer of concrete AND, into this layer of concrete, 170,000 pennies from the US, Canada and Europe were manually inserted. This large array of coins, created an unusual interpretation of an animal fur. This artwork was not just a thing to enjoy with the eyes, but one could not avoid touching it. I'm pretty sure, some people even tried to taste it. This statue was a perfect example of a simple way to engage the sense of touch, which was relatively neglected among the other artworks and burning man.
There were so many artworks on the playa, I’ve mentioned just a tiny portion of what was there. Each one had its own uniqueness. Some were more engaging and some in my opinion, were not so interesting or just too puzzling. If you find this subject interesting, you may check out This website with a complete list of all the artworks that have been at Burning Man 2017.
Last but not least, I would like to refer to the art cars, or as they are also known as - mutant vehicles. There were literally hundreds of them roaming the city and the playa. From small golf clubs, motorized tricycles to full size trucks. Some of those vehicles are so unique (and again) bizarre. There is something crazy about the art cars. From a cauliflower, a tropical island, a fish, a truck size TV, a full size church on wheels, pirate ships and so on…
The art cars takes The experience of moving around Burning man to a whole new level. During the night they emit a lot of light (and some of them - very loud music). These cars add another layer to the dynamic appearance of the playa. If you take a look around you, close your eyes for a few minutes and take a look again, you will see a whole different surrounding. The big cars, sometimes serve as a full scale dance floors and many of them create outstanding light shows. Everyone can hop on and off, and it's a great way to explore the festival if you have no specific plan.
I find the art cars a realization of this american crazy-creative passion that hardly exists anywhere else around the world. Its this idea of creating something just for the sake of creation without considering the final (sometimes weird) results. It is something which is no less than a pure joy to experience. This idea of allegedly creation without a cause, could be beneficial for people everywhere. This total commitment to radical different creation without considering external judgment, could lead people away from spending time on frustration towards a positive creative phase.
In conclusion, I was sceptical regarding Burning Man, but the diversity I’ve experienced in term of the participants, and the creativity changed my mind about this place. Yes. I can understand that saying: ‘Im at fu%/ing burning man!’. No, it was not a life changing experience, yet, it's a place where one can be charged with a lot of inspiration, and hopefully take it to the daily life (or as burners call it - the default).
All things that are created for and during Burning Man are made voluntarily. It is a pleasure to create something just for strangers without expecting any immediate recompense, and I think it's something that can be felt by many of the artworks.