What does it take to create and conflagrate Burning Man’s 75-foot tall icon? The answer is blood, determination, attention to detail, and a hell of a lot of commitment from nearly 100 people.
The team held traditional planning meetings early in the year, along with discussions about and coordination with the different crews involved: pedestal, neon, laser, rigging, and pyro. A spring trip to the ranch allowed for a review and inventory of the Man team’s tools prior to the build, and materials were ordered early in the year so they would be ready. For the third year in a row, a few select craft people worked to build and assemble the Man at Black Rock Station in the Nevada desert. In an attempt to reduce the stress of the project, a new implementation plan was created. The build schedule was moved up to the week before the July 4 weekend, and once again, a few knowledgeable carpenters proved to work out better than hordes of regular volunteers. The crew set a new record by building and loading the Man in its box by Friday evening, after six days of 10- to 15-hour work sessions. The seventh day was set aside for inventory and packing away the tools.
By tradition, after the Man was built, the crew assembled sculptures of their own design from the scraps left from construction, and a builders’ burn took place that evening. A new feature of the shop was a camera recording the construction process. This footage was made available on the web site, giving people a chance to see the process of the build. Extra volunteers did show up, and they worked on a few essential projects: The cargo van that transports the Man to the playa was equipped with interior support benches to hold the parts in place, and a ramp was created to simplify loading the parts in and out of the container.
By the time the Man finally arrived on the playa, a lot of activity had already prepared the way. The geographic center where the Black Rock City survey starts is where the pyramid and the Man stand. Preparation for that spot starts with sand and a fire blanket, protecting the playa from the enormous heat created when the Man is released in pyrotechnic delight. The fire blanket is made of Kevlar, a high-performance textile that is lightweight, flexible, waterproof, and resistant to high temperatures. Any fire blanket should always be larger than the artwork itself to ensure that no embers fall on the open playa. Once the fire blanket is laid out, five inches of sand cover the surface for added protection. A miscalculation required us to place a second order, slowing the beginning process.
Protecting the playa from any flaming artwork has become a standard operating practice for the last 5 years. Burn protection for the Man has more than doubled each of the last 3 years: 650 square feet (25′ X 25′) in 2001, over 3,000 square feet (56′ X 56′) in 2002, and over 9,000 square feet (95′ X 95′) in 2003.
The pyramid that was part of the 2003 art theme, Beyond Belief, was the most ambitious of the Man’s pedestals yet. The combined height of the pyramid and Man reached 79 feet, the highest in the event’s history. Yet the Man remained accessible to all — no games, passports, or tokens were needed to ascend the great stairway. Foot-high treads slowed this passage and forced everyone to take giant steps to the chamber on the pyramid’s topmost tier. From there, you could gaze out upon Black Rock City and down upon the hallowed boundary of raked sand that framed the pyramid and the sixteen niches surrounding the base. The name guardian was given to those who helped and encouraged participants to occupy a niche and be transformed into a living icon. Deep inside the pyramid, inner sanctums housed altars where participants were encouraged to leave cherished items, and that gift-giving became a sacrificial act. Helping people transform into living icons and the encouragement to leave gifts created participants from passive spectators, and the Man’s gift back to participants made them part of the pedestal in ways deeper than mere adornment, since they knew that what they gave would be part of the final conflagration.
Assembly of the Man and construction of the pedestal happen simultaneously, all crews working with safety in mind. The push to finish serious projects within a limited amount of time creates its own set of tensions. Sometimes tempers and tools have a habit of flying through the air. Better communication earlier in the year means that plans will turn out better on the playa, always leaving room for the unpredictable conditions of the desert. Burlap soaked in wax is wrapped on the inside of the Man’s legs, arms, and parts of the torso. Wax is an accelerant that helps the fire spread, especially with such massive amounts of wood. The crew encountered a small obstruction when the burlap was ordered late, but their drive and determination brought the procedure back on schedule.
Since 2001, the pedestal has changed the working dynamics of the Man attaching anything (except for pyrotechnics) is better done on the ground than in the air, while the artwork dangles from a boom-lift. Once the Man is assembled, the neon crew moves in to weave their magic and wire the electricity. A leap of faith with the new neon crew in 2002 set a standard that has been proven to be highly successful and was repeated this last year. Close to 90 percent of the neon glass tubing was attached to the Man before it was lifted onto the pedestal.
Attaching and rigging the 2,275-pound Man to the pedestal requires a complicated and beautiful display of teamwork and temperament. This year the pedestal offered even more challenges than in previous years for placing a crane to lift and attach the Man. Leaving one side of the pyramid open during construction allowed cranes to place the Man and to lift the crews to work on construction, neon, and rigging. After final placement, a test lift is done to check the complicated pulley system used to lift the Man’s arms on the night of the burn. The test lift went well, but the equipment had to be dismantled to install the laser. Four more days were spent finishing the Herculean task of the pyramid construction. Upon completion, it opened to all participants, who immediately began crawling through the top lattice work and hanging on the Man itself. This Achilles heel was covered with plywood, and Rangers were given more explicit instructions for guarding the Man.
Saturday, the day the Man is released is full of anticipation. At sunrise, the laser was removed, rigging for the arms was reinstalled, and the Rangers cleared the pedestal of all participants, forming the first 75-foot perimeter. From this point, the pedestal was off-limits to all except the pyro crew, whose dangerous job it was to load explosives and fireworks. Just after sunset, the neon was turned on for the last time, the Rangers moved outward to the last perimeter (300 feet from the pedestal), firefighters took their place at the 9 o’clock side of the Great Circle, and the Fire Conclave gathered for the night’s festivities.
The Man’s arms began rising without a problem, but to the dismay of all, one arm gave way and slowly lowered itself. The crew returned and attempted to lift it again only to feel the clamps or cable give out, causing it to crash down and knock out the neon lighting on the left side. Examination of the cabling after the burn revealed that failed saddle clamps were the most likely cause of the disappointment. When we have one time a year to do our best and it does not come off the way we thought it would, it is not because we did not try. And it does not mean we give up.
The care given to a bunch of wood that will eventually end up as a pile of ash is an extraordinary gesture. The construction of the Man receives such loving care that you would think this work of art would be intended to be exhibited in a fancy gallery with a huge price tag. Well, the Black Rock Desert is our gallery, where the mountain ranges comprise the walls, and the endless night sky with its star filter shine on all who play in this desert waste-land. Yes a huge price tag hangs on the Man when you take everything into account: builders, materials, heavy equipment, neon, pyrotechnics, fire dancers, Rangers, fire department, but it is a priceless achievement. Remnants of the Man will last long in our dreams. For a brief moment in time, peaceful humanity stands still before the Man, and then just like the wind through a dandelion, it is gone. The ash may blow away into the desert air, but the lingering memories will always cling to our cerebellum.
Crimson Rose, Ben Stoelting and Shevaun Gallant