Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Burning Man: The Art

A giant double helix: an obvious draw for a bio nerd like myself.

For the first part of my Burning Man series, please see Monday's post. Today I'll discuss the art, which can take on just about as many forms as you can think of, from immense static installations to mutant vehicles to music to dance performance, and so much more. My photos don't begin to cover the vast array of art we saw, and that's because sometimes at Burning Man it's important to put the camera aside and just live the moment. This can be hard to do if you're a photo buff, but there's something liberating about absorbing all the details of an experience, taking in the sights and sounds and smells and cementing it in your memory alone. The interesting thing about such moments is that you never know when some future thing will trigger the memory; in some ways the recollection of these experiences can be more powerful than the ones where an image is brought back home with you, stripping away many of the other important elements of the moment.

One such unphotographed experience was the Marching Band March Off, which we saw both in 2008 (by happy accident) and again this year (on purpose). Five marching bands competed at Center Camp for the distinguished honor of holding for one year the coveted winged trophy provided by emcee extraordinaire Raspa (for a photo of Raspa and the trophy, as well as some excellent commentary on this year's burn, see this blog entry).

In describing the marching band competition, I really need to begin with Center Camp, the heart of Black Rock City. Center Camp is the downtown of the metropolis, and holds the distinction of being one of only 2 places in the entire city where your money is any good; at Center Camp you can use it to buy coffee or tea, and at a couple of other locations on the playa you can use it to buy ice.

The entrance to Center Camp.

It's generally always lively at Center Camp, day or night. Not only is there a lot to see and experience (including the aforementioned coffee), but there are also plenty of places to relax.

It's important, though, to make sure your bunny ears are still securely in place
should you decide to take a nap. You'd hate to be seen without your costume!

By night, Center Camp can take on an otherworldly quality, making it an ideal spot to watch performances or hear music. The night of the marching band competition it was abuzz with activity, and by the final performances the place was packed and everyone was really into it. The bands were judged on several different criteria, including stamina, cleanliness (which points were deducted for), audience response, and the mystery category, "that certain je ne sais quoi." The bands, of course, were no ordinary marching bands; some had exotic percussion instruments or percussion only, some had dancers and stilt walkers, and one used a full-sized bomb casing as a prop. The winning band was the Titanium Sporkestra from Seattle, and coming in a close second was the winner from 2008, the Bay Area's own Loyd Family Players. The Marching Band March Off was one of our favorite events of this year's burn.

Center Camp by night in a dust storm. The dust hangs in the air and gives everything a mysterious glow. On this particular evening they were playing a CD by Chance's End, an excellent local violin-based electronica act. No music could have fit the atmosphere more perfectly.

The Minaret, outside the main entrance to Center Camp, at dusk.

The art piece everyone was talking about this year was the stunning Bliss Dance. Never have I seen a more perfect tribute to the female form; using steel beams and a steel mesh "skin," a 40-foot nude, dancing woman came to life in the middle of the playa. She's not sexualized at all, in fact she gives the impression that she's dancing for no other audience than herself. According to the Burning Man Earth website, "She celebrates humanity and shows the feminine beauty, power and strength that emerges when women are safe and free to be themselves."




This piece drew a crowd day and night. There were no events happening there per se (unless a mutant vehicle happened to pull up playing music), but the sheer beauty of this piece just made people want to go out there and BE with it. At night she was lit both from the outside and the inside, creating some interesting visual effects.


Much of the art at Burning Man is highly interactive; you can climb on it, you can write on it, you can work the control panel. And at the end of the week most anything made of wood is burned.

Including, obviously, this guy.


Whereas the Man burn on Saturday night is a huge party, the Temple burn is a solemn, reverent affair that happens on Sunday, after most of the party crowd is gone. People go the the Temple all week to leave memorials to loved ones who have died, or write wishes or prayers, all of which is sent up to the heavens in a massive ball of flame and smoke.

Oh, and did I mention the fireworks? There were LOTS of fireworks at the Man burn.

As I mentioned on Monday, many art installations incorporate fire into their very design. This makes them cozy places to hang out on a chilly evening.

Some pieces suggest spirituality...

...some make a statement...

...and some are just plain silly.

This year's artwork was really spectacular, and as I mentioned my photos don't begin to capture it all. But I hope this gives you a flavor of the sheer variety that the playa can hold. Every day, at any hour, there is something new to be experienced, and that, I think, is what keeps people coming back year after year.

13 comments:

LPC said...

Wow. Only wow. Believe it or not, I've wanted to go for about 5-6 years now. I remember when it was just some statues on the Bay mudflats.

Sheila said...

That's so amazing. I love love love that statue of the woman. That is an incredible piece.

Thank you so much for sharing your pictures, Audi.

The Cheap Chick said...

I used to want to go to Burning Man for the experience and for the costuming. But after this thoughtful post, I only want to go for the Temple. Beautifully stated. Thank you.

April said...

I'm enamored with the Bliss Dance art. Wow. She's beautiful, and I agree with everything you said about her. I would've love to just have BEEN with her.

Audi said...

LPC: A high WASP at Burning Man?! Oh my God YES! It would be a transformative experience for you, to be sure. I think you would actually really enjoy it. Plus, the playa dust would go so well with your pearls...

Audi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Franca said...

wowoee! Burning man sounds like an amazing place/event!

Kristin said...

Thank you so much for putting up these posts, Audi! I have been curious about Burning Man for a long time, and I'm really feeling drawn to it. Perhaps I should start planning for next year.

Just your pictures of the "Bliss Dance" move me, I can't imagine what the emotion would be like around it!

LPC said...

Ha! Exactly. My brother went two years ago. But he's an Artsy Cousin sort, and a psychotherapist. You know, he lives in SF, and hangs in the Burning Man circles. I suppose it's possible, now that I think of it, that you two have met. He goes by Peter:).

ReaderRita said...

First of all, your photos are fantastic. They really capture a vibe, and imbue the image with the sentiment of the experience. Beautiful.
Secondly, thanks for your 'narration' of the event- you are insightful and articulate, and that allows those of us who have never been to Burning Man to get a feel for the real thing, rather than the dry listing of activities, or worse yet, a "hey-look-at-the-freaks" mainstream media accounting.

I am very much obliged. This is so touching. This is going to be our vacation next year. We need to feed our souls...

Audi said...

The Cheap Chick: The Temple is really something; the design changes every year but it's always spectacular, and completely non-denominational, of course. A lot of people get married there, too; it's a very special space.

Kristin and ReaderRita: I'm glad my posts have inspired both of you to think about going; now is definitely the time to begin thinking about it, especially since you haven't been before. I'd suggest starting by poring over the Burning Man website, which is loaded with practical information for first-timers. There's also a "BRC Year Round" section, which lists all sorts of related events that go on all year and might be a good way to get some exposure to the Burning Man culture.

LPC: I wouldn't be surprised at all if I'd met your brother; Mark and I attend a lot of parties and such in SF that are packed with the Burning Man crowd. And SF is such a small town.

maryeb said...

Thanks for sharing your adventure. It looks like great fun and I've loved hearing about it. Maybe some day.....

Between Laundry Days said...

Dear god. Incredible. I quite honestly have no other words.