2009 Art Theme: Evolution

Illustration from portrait of Charles Darwin, by "DA" Dominic Tinio
Illustration from portrait of Charles Darwin, by “DA” Dominic Tinio

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection… There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers… and that, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been and are being evolved.” — Charles Darwin,
— The Origin of Species

Nature never made a plan, nor does it seem to copy very well. No living thing is ever quite the same as others of its kind. Charles Darwin called this Natural Variation. There is a kind of subtle chaos, a supple element of chance and change, residing at the core of living things. We’ve learned that DNA, the code that programs life, is subject to continual mutation. This enables generations to evolve within a changing world. This year’s art theme contemplates the power and the meaning of the process we call evolution.

Design by Rod Garret and Larry Harvey. Rendering by Andrew Johnstone and Rod Garrett.
Design by Rod Garret and Larry Harvey. Rendering by Andrew Johnstone and Rod Garrett.

“When at last I had disabused my mind of the enormous imposture of a design, an object, and an end, a purpose or a system, I began to see dimly how much more grandeur, beauty and hope there is in a divine chaos — not chaos in the sense of disorder or confusion but simply the absence of regular order — than there is in a universe made by pattern. This draught-board universe my mind had laid out: this machine-made world and piece of mechanism; what a petty, despicable, micro-cosmus I had substituted for reality.” — Richard Jefferies

In 2009, the Burning Man will rise above a ‘tangled bank’ consisting of irregular wooden triangles. No two elements of this organic composition will be quite the same; together they’ll create what’s best described as a chaotic truss. At night the tangled bank will come alive with luminous life forms scratching, crawling and slithering their way through it. This space will also house a pond known as the Gene Pool. Strange Ur-creatures will peep outward from the surface of this primal soup. The central tree supporting Burning Man, beribboned with a double helix, will exist in flux: switching on and switching off, changing colors unexpectedly.

Photograph by Michael Garlington
Photograph by Michael Garlington

The human species, Homo sapiens, has existed for approximately 200,000 years. The genus known as homo has a lineage stretching back two million years. Homo erectus, the first human ancestor to walk upright, and Homo habilis, the toolmaker, are among our relatives. We are a bud belonging to a twig of this ancestral tree.

The process of trial and error that has made this possible is called Natural Selection. Genetically encoded traits that aid survival tend to spread throughout entire populations. Living entities that bear these genes endure and reproduce, but maladaptive traits are not passed on. This causes species to evolve to better fit the world in which they live. However, this rigorous weeding out of ‘unfit’ individuals has gradually ceased to occur within our species. Medicine and mutual aid assure that nearly anyone is able to survive and reproduce.

“At bottom every man knows well enough that he is a unique being, only once on this earth; and by no extraordinary chance will such a marvelously picturesque piece of diversity in unity as he is, ever be put together a second time.” — Frederick Nietzsche

Now adrift in our own gene pool, we have encountered a new phase of evolution. We’ve become a conscious breed of culture-bearing animals. Black Rock City is a kind of Petri dish, and Burning Man is an experiment in generating culture. We’ve learned that culture’s a spontaneous phenomenon. It thrives as a result of numberless and unplanned interactions. All that’s really needed is a fitting social vessel to sustain it. This happens best within communities that harbor many different modes of self-expression. We’ve also learned that cultures effloresce when human beings feel free to offer up their gifts.

Our theme this year prompts three related questions: What are we as human beings, where have we come from, and how may we adapt to meet an ever-changing world?

To apply for a grant to fund the creation of artwork for Burning Man 2009, please see our art grant guidelines.