The art of Burning Man has earned its reputation for occupying a wholly unique place in the art world. There’s no other place on the planet that artists can enjoy the creation of such a level of unbridled interactivity, experimentation and adventurousness, sheer scale, and – of course – fire.
The art theme for Burning Man 2010 was “Metropolis: The Life of Cities”, and a number of artists took the opportunity to explore the impacts of urban planning, urban design, and co-location on community and culture.
In 2010, there were over 275 registered art projects on the open playa – an increase from 2009 by a couple of dozen. Of these, 36 were honoraria projects (50% more than in 2009), funded by Burning Man’s art grant program. Despite (and perhaps because of) the struggling economy, Burning Man decided to increase its art grant budget in 2010, returning it to near 2008 levels. The art grant committee painstakingly chose projects to fund from roughly 280 submitted art grant proposals.
However, the Burning Man organization instituted a new “Support a Project” program in 2010, encouraging artists to set up fundraising accounts with Kickstarter.com, which would then be promoted through the extensive reach of Burning Man’s communications channels, such as the Jackrabbit Speaks email newsletter, Facebook and Twitter. As a result, a large number of art projects were funded through the support of the Burning Man community, and were thus able to be realized for the playa, without leaving artists severely in debt.
Every year, Burning Man commissions artists to design and construct the Temple, Black Rock City’s spiritual centerpiece. In 2010, long-time Burning Man artists Jessica Hobbs and Rebecca Anders worked with Peter “PK” Kimelman to gather an incredibly tight-knit team from the Burning Man community to construct the Temple of Flux. Rather than having the temple conform to traditional sacred space architectural norms, this team developed a vision that embraced nature. The temple consisted of five massive dune-like structures, reminiscent of the canyonlands of southern Utah, referencing a time before formal structures, where such natural formations were the spaces people came to gather, and take refuge. Strolling through these high-walled canyons, one was reminded that the natural world is the ultimate temple, and those of us lucky enough to appreciate it carry the sacred with us in our reverence.
Amongst the honorium project were notables “Nowhere2nowhere Monorail”, a 500-foot long elevated wooden monorail track along which a decorative car would run, transporting participants from neither here nor there to another place in space, created by Seattle artist Helen Cook and her team. “Intersection”, developed by James Reagent and Charles Ellis, featured a series of eerie white mannequins attempting to cross a busy street intersection, with an audio soundscape emanating from speakers mounted in the mannequins’ heads. “The Mant Farm”, created by the Sober Free Society out of Seattle, was a 40-foot tall, human-scale ant farm where participants walking through the trails built into this scaffolding structure could feel what it’s like to live in an ant farm.
Kate Raudenbush continued her long tradition of creating incredibly elegant, detailed steel sculptures which speak to the dynamism of the human condition. “Future’s Past”, her offering for 2010, was reminiscent of the ancient Cambodian temples of Angkor Wat, with Banyan trees springing forth from between the crevices in the rock slabs. With steel walls laser-cut to echo the geometrical patterns found in computer circuit boards, and an elaborately graceful tree sprouting from its roof, Kate’s piece challenged the viewer to consider the dynamic tension between nature and technology, the organic and the man-made.
Michael Christian’s “Home” was an 8′-round steel globe, which was created by overlaying the outlines of four city maps on top of each other. Deceptively simple, the ornate detailing of this striking piece became apparent only upon close inspection. Participants delighted in spinning it day and night, as a bright white LED light in its center cast a dizzying swirl of hypnotic shadow patterns on the ground below.
2010 also saw the return – after a several-year hiatus – of one of Black Rock City’s more prolific performers: Doctor Megavolt. Austin Richards (aka Doctor Megavolt) performed several shows during the week, where he delighted huge crowds by taunting, teasing and playing with thousands of watts of electricity generated by massive Tesla coils.
More and More Art
Beyond the honorarium artists, hundreds of artists brought artwork to the playa in 2010. Easily the most striking and iconic piece of 2010 was “Bliss Dance”, created by sculptor Marco Cochrane. Probably the finest example of figurative art ever seen on playa, Bliss Dance is a 40′ tall female figure, lost in the ecstatic moment of pure surrender to her dance. Her skeleton, built atop a structural steel support system, was painstakingly created by welding thousands of steel triangles from balls and rods, all of which was then skinned with steel mesh. An intricate, computer-controlled LED lighting system was built into the structure, allowing participants to choreograph the internal lighting scheme in realtime, or turn it off, allowing the external floodlights to wash over her.
“Megatropolis” was an enclave of five iconic urban skyscapers, arranged in a semi-circular pattern, reminiscent of the layout of Black Rock City. Constructed by many veterans of Burning Man’s Department of Public Works, along with hundreds of volunteers, this ambitious installation was placed out beyond the Temple of Flux. An elevator in one of the buildings afforded participants a birds-eye view of the the city. It was burned on Friday night, in one of the most jaw-dropping and explosive displays of pyrotechnics on playa.
2010 was a great year for art at Burning Man – at every turn it seemed like artists were outdoing themselves, developing more expressive, thought-provoking installations than ever before. It’s also notable that there was an increase in the number of first-time artists, and that more artists are leveraging the power of large-scale collaborations to realize their visions, which is allowing for more, and ever-more ambitious artworks. The Art department looks forward to this trend continuing, as well as the trend of smaller, more intimate pieces for people to enjoy.