Opinion

The Art of Burning Man (But Is It Art?)

Photo via oliverfluck.com

This week, hundreds of artists from all over the world will begin assembling one of the largest and most dazzling group art shows in the United States, or anywhere. Approximately 50,000 people will view the show during its week-long run, making it proportionately even more popular attendance-wise than the recent Alexander McQueen hullabaloo at the Met. So why don’t you know more about it? And why aren’t you there?

Well, unless you planned ahead and bought your ticket for Burning Man several months ago before they sold out (in which case you’re probably on your way to Black Rock City already), it looks like you’re going to have to settle for experiencing this year’s assortment of “radical self-expression” via some kind of online facsimile (or coffee table book, if you still do that sort of thing) — though Hyperallergic has a reporter attending this year’s affair. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the event and by all accounts the art on the playa promises to be bigger and trippier than ever.

(Photo via burningtribe.com)

Of particular interest this year is a monumental installation by artist Jim Bowers, who enlisted a team of “Laser Technology Scientists” and 67 fellow artists  (along with a Kickstarter campaign) to create the 1MileClock Project:

At over 5,000′ feet wide, high powered lasers will keep accurate time with hour, minute and second hands marking artistic 22′ towers over the heads of the 50,000 festival goers that attend the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada Desert every year in August.

(And you thought that Christian Marclay piece was special?)

So if there are so many amazing things to see in Black Rock City every year come the last week in August, how come most people who aren’t part of the Burning Man community don’t hear more about them the rest of the year? Part of the reason is the ephemeral nature of Burning Man itself: in keeping with event’s core tenet of “leaving no trace” in its remote Nevada location, all the installations are already starting to come down by the time the rest of America is busy finishing up their last six packs of Bud Light in the wee hours of Labor Day.

"Big Round Cubatron" (2006) (Photo via flickr.com/photos/sterlingely)

Aside from the remoteness of the location and the difficulty and expense of getting there, however, the tribal nature of the event may have something to do with the why the art of Burning Man isn’t better known among the wider art-appreciating public. As a friend of mine who’s a  ten-year Burning Man veteran explained to me, many regular attendees tend to divide the population at large into “Burners” and “everyone else”, and there’s some sense that if you don’t commit to being there, the art isn’t for you anyway. (Then again, I’ve heard the same thing said about the Venice Biennale.)

"Belisima" (Photo via flickr.com/photos/burnblue)

But that elitism works both ways. I asked another friend who attended Burning Man three years ago (and hated it) for her take on the art there and she dismissed it as “a bunch of hippy shit” that was “only interesting if you’re on mushrooms” — which is a pretty harsh assessment when you consider the scale, scope and virtuosity on display in galleries such as this one.

Still, given the number of arts professionals who invest time and energy in Burning Man every year (to say nothing about the many year-round Burning Man-flavored arts events in places like San Francisco and New York City associated with the Black Rock Arts Foundation and other entities), it’s curious that its art seems to be regarded as much of a world apart as it is by Burners and non-Burners alike. Then again, maybe that’s the whole point.

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