2011 Art Theme: Rites of Passage

Illustration by Dominic "DA" Tinio
Illustration by Dominic “DA” Tinio

…[existential] changes of condition do not occur without disturbing the life of society and the individual, and it is the function of rites of passage to reduce their harmful effects. That such are regarded as real and important is demonstrated by the occurrence of rites, in important ceremonies among widely differing peoples, enacting death in one condition and resurrection in another.

– Arnold Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage

The story is told of how the first settlers of our city arrived in the Black Rock Desert. Drawing a line in the ground at the edge of the playa, they were told that once they crossed this line, “Everything will be different.” Holding hands, they stepped across it. When present day participants arrive at Burning Man they’re met by Greeters. Newcomers are invited to ring a bell and roll about in the dust. On the sixth day of the event, participants encircle Burning Man to witness its destruction. Here, for the very first time, an entire community regards itself. People do this with the reassurance that another Man, an always slightly different Man, will rise anew. At the the end of the event, thousands silently surround a temple dedicated to that strangest and most fearful change of all: the loss of loved ones and our ultimate departure from the world. From first to last, Burning Man has always been a rite of passage.

Yet a keener and more poignant meaning can attach to unique instants in the private life of every individual: moments of crisis and frisson, as when a cri de coeur informs us that we’ve somehow crossed an inner threshold and are changed. Thus moving from one state of being into an unknown other can be frightening. This is not a facile transformation; it obliges us to face our innermost insecurities, and it requires faith, a willingness to leap off the ladder of ordered existence. Our theme this year invites participants to join with others in creating rites of passage. The content of these rites may be as various as life itself. Whether such performances are ludicrous or solemn, their aim is to remove us from the context and the cares of daily life, confront us with our vital need to be, and then return us to the fellowship of a society.

Rear view of Burning Man, Design by Rod Garrett, Rendering by Rod Garrett and Andrew Johnstone
Rear view of Burning Man, Design by Rod Garrett, Rendering by Rod Garrett and Andrew Johnstone

This year the Burning Man will perch atop two pinnacles divided by a chasm. His torso turned, his limbs rotating outward, he will seem to pivot in mid-action, as if striding forth. Participants ascending ladders in this monument will inhabit a sheer slice of nothing at its core, while high above them Burning Man engages in a delicate high wire act. Four semi-pyramids with flaming braziers will surround this structure. These open-sided alcoves will become performance sites, venues for participant-created rites of passage. Whether such events are planned or improvised, their meaning should be made available to passersby. The act of pilgrimage can also be a rite of passage, and we invite participants to organize processions. Envision moving down the lamp-lined avenues that lead to Burning Man.

The history of our time calls to mind those Walt Disney characters who rush madly over the edge of a cliff without seeing it: the power of their imagination keeps them suspended in mid-air, but as soon as they look down and see where they are, they fall.*

– Raoul Vaneigem, The History of Everyday Life

We are living in a period of widespread fear and insecurity. We cling to what we have, but what we’ve had was merely the illusion of a mortgaged future. Nothing that we see around us feels sustainable. As one who blunders off a cliff, our legs still twiddle in the air: we haven’t gained a foothold that will see us through. Deeply-fathomed change we share with others – the kind of change that summons up the earth to meet one’s feet – becomes the only pathway forward, our most crucial step.

As always, any work of art by anyone, regardless of our theme, is welcome at the Burning Man event. If you are planning to create fire art or wish to install a work of art on the open playa, please see our Art Guidelines for more information. To apply for a grant to fund the creation of artwork for Burning Man 2011, please see our art grant guidelines.

*The author of this quoted passage is a French intellectual. Although expert on the subject existential dread, he cannot be expected to distinguish Warner Bros. and Wile E. Coyote from the cartoon creations of Walt Disney Studios.