There’s a kind of wager of madness required to make art at Burning Man, because you must do it in the blazingly hot and bitterly cold desert, where it will remain on view for only a week. In his book, Doherty sums up the ethos-cum-aesthetic of Burning Man well, writing that “lots of Burning Man art has that same feel, of amusingly absurd intellectualized nonsense, the kinds of ideas that slightly skewed creative people brainstorm about on late nights at cafés and around the hardwood living room floor after the fourth glass of wine or third bowl of pot, but actually executed.” Even today, when there’s an application process, and the organization spends large sums of money funding work ($1.2 million for 58 installations on the playa in 2016, according to the annual report), art at Burning Man still seems to adhere to the same principles: the bigger or more spectacular, the better. And anything goes.
David Best built his first temple out of scrap wood at Burning Man in 2000. Called the Temple of the Mind, it turned into a memorial when a friend of the artist died shortly before he’d planned to head to the festival. Since then, the temple, which is often but not always conceived by Best, has become an annual mainstay of Burning Man. It’s an elegantly designed site of grief and mourning, a place where, over the course of the week, people leave personal items and write on the walls and dedicate memorials to loved ones they’ve lost. Then, the night after the burning of the man, it’s set on fire. Both entering the structure and watching it disintegrate are, by all accounts, profoundly moving.
Nora Atkinson, the curator of No Spectators, experienced the power of the temple firsthand when she attended Burning Man in 2017 and commissioned Best to make one for the exhibition. The work takes over a grand hall–type space at the top of the stairs on the museum’s second floor and is far and away the best piece in the show. Best has re-created, at least in part, the outpouring of emotion that occurs at the festival by inviting Smithsonian visitors to write notes and testaments on small blocks of wood, which they can place into the intricate patterns that form altars and light fixtures and cover every inch of the room’s walls. Doing so is a small but meaningful act, and the beauty of the space amplifies the feelings of sanctity and reverence.
Best’s installation appears with 13 others at the Renwick, each of them by an artist or collective that has shown work at Burning Man. These are the centerpieces of No Spectators, which takes over the entire museum; there’s also a small selection of costumes and jewelry from the festival, photography and video of it, and a mini exhibition within an exhibition—archival material from the Nevada Museum of Art’s City of Dust: The Evolution of Burning Man, which tells the event’s origin story. Six more sculptures are installed outside, on surrounding neighborhood streets.
The title of the Renwick show restates, in essence, one of Burning Man’s core principles—“a radically participatory ethic,” the idea that there are no spectators because everyone can and should be involved in building the contents of Black Rock City. Atkinson wants to replicate this in the Smithsonian—an ambitious goal at a time when museumgoers are prone to treat art as a backdrop for selfies. Here “you can touch the works,” she explains. “You can add to a lot of the works.” Best’s temple provides the most affecting point of connection. Candy Chang’s Before I Die..., which consists of chalkboards on which visitors can complete the title sentence, offers another opportunity for self-reflection. Five Ton Crane’s bus-cum–movie theater invites a more passive form of participation, but its size and meticulousness give you a sense of how art making at Burning Man is also a form of world building.
Still, there’s a limit to how much you can get involved with art in a museum. Duane Flatmo’s bike-powered dragon made of found metal objects looks delightful, but it would no doubt inspire more wonder moving across the playa than it does sitting stationary in a gallery. The same goes for Richard Wilks’s mobile zoetrope. At Burning Man, by contrast, you can use the art. You can volunteer to help build it. A sculpture can become a directional marker for navigating the playa: Leo Villareal, an artist who’s now represented by the blue-chip Pace Gallery and has a work on view at the Renwick, made his first light sculpture in 1997 at Burning Man “as a way to get home at night” amid the desert darkness, he said. The piece was an “epiphany” that led him to start working with light, which has been his primary artistic material for the past 20 years (he’s continued to attend the festival, too).
Burning Man is “the anti–look but don’t touch,” explained dancer, part-time art critic, and six-time Burner Larissa Archer. “You climb on things and share a drink with your buddies under them. You park a few art cars around them and have a rave. There’s a wonderful casualness to the treatment of art—it’s sacred but not in a fussy, uptight manner.” Casual as they may try to be, art museums are, at the end of the day, uptight. They’re object repositories and arbiters of taste and culture. This makes them an uneasy fit with the rigorous populism of Burning Man, where everyone’s expression of creativity is welcome, no matter how primitive.
For all the emphasis on participation, it’s difficult not to judge the art at the Renwick primarily on its aesthetic value. This does not serve some of the work well. When I toured No Spectators with Atkinson, she explained how, at the festival, Christopher Schardt’s installation Nova provided relief from constant, thumping rave beats by offering a space where you could sit on cushions, watch LED images of flowers and birds take shape on a screen above your head, and listen to classical music. In the museum, the animations look elementary, and it’s unclear what their conceptual connection is to the sound.
Over a span of five years, Marco Cochrane built three giant sculptures of nude women on the playa for his Bliss Project. They were, like a lot of Burning Man art, technically impressive: made from welded steel rods and balls, covered in a stainless steel mesh skin (some even contained programmable LED lighting), and ranging from 40 to 55 feet tall. In the desert, as the women towered over you and competed for pride of place with the iconic man, you could forgive Cochrane for their anatomical imperfections or for advocating that such simple forms could change “human consciousness around the need to end violence against women,” as he writes on his web site. In the museum, where one of the women has been replicated at a smaller size, you can see the flaws in the form up close; they become cracks in a foundation built on simplistic idealism.
Burning Man didn’t start in the desert, but there’s a reason it has thrived there: Miles of parched earth make for a perfect blank canvas. As Doherty writes, “In a place with nothing, anything seemed like everything.” At the heart of Burning Man—not just the artworks but the entire festival—is its ability to inspire in attendees a combination of awe and pride: We made it. Look what we did. Look at what we’re capable of. There’s an earnestness to this sentiment that’s both admirably pure and grossly myopic, as if Burners were the only ones ever to have built a city, experimented with alternative models of living, or spent time in the Black Rock Desert.
This is the root of so much of the self-congratulatory language that can make the festival seem insufferable to those who’ve never been. “You are the hope of the human race,” reads an “award of excellence” given out by a pair of Burners to other attendees in 2007. “Who would do this? We could let our imaginations run wild—who had ever done it in the history of mankind? It felt like glory,” Larry Harvey says in Doherty’s book. The pioneer-savior message gets even more muddled when it’s turned into a commodity, as in the gift shop of the Renwick during No Spectators. There, for $129.99, you can buy a necklace that boasts the word ego in large gold letters. Is the flaunting of one’s ego meant to be a good thing? How do the Burning Man principles of “communal effort” and “radical self-reliance” align?
At the same time, that sentiment is why Villareal and others see Burning Man itself as “one giant artwork,” in his words. “It’s all one huge thing that everyone is collaboratively building, a city. It is hard to take things out of that context and bring them out into the world.” It’s notable that, among all the civic structures that have sprung up within Black Rock City—the census project and the rangers, the newspapers and the radio station—there is no museum. Likely such an institution would seem superfluous because the whole festival functions as one itself.
Indeed, the artworks of Burning Man don’t always make sense outside of the desert because, as much as they exist (or fail) on their own merits, they’re just as importantly only one facet of the demonstration of human creativity that is Burning Man. Art helps Burners tell a story about the kind of enlightened people they are and the kind of glorious place they’ve created. In many cases, that is the only story it can tell.