Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson, “Ursa Major” (2016) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

WASHINGTON, DC — For the office-dwelling denizens of downtown Washington, DC, their next lunch break could feature a more fun than fearsome encounter with a 13-foot-tall waving bear on 19th Street NW.

Clad in a copper fur made from 170,000 pennies, the sculpture titled “Ursa Major” may seem out of place here, but it felt right at home more than 2,200 miles west of DC on a scorched white-clay lake bed in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert where 70,000 partygoers gather one week each summer at Burning Man for an unbridled celebration of art, music, and communal creativity.

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man at the Renwick Gallery, installation view (photo by Ron Blunt)

In an exhibition opening March 30, the Renwick Gallery has transported some of that Burning Man spirit to its more buttoned-down environs a stone’s throw from the White House. For the first time at the Renwick, an exhibition is spilling out of the museum’s doors onto the streets of downtown DC, with six large sculptures, including “Ursa Major,” taking up residence on sidewalks and medians through a partnership with the downtown-area Golden Triangle Business Improvement District.

Inside the museum, the Renwick will show 14 installations that were displayed at Burning Man or were commissioned from Burning Man artists, along with smaller artwork, handmade jewelry, costumes, photos, and memorabilia. No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man is so large and technically complex that the entire museum was closed to the public for almost a month, the first time the museum has closed for an extended period since reopening in 2015 after a two-year renovation.

Renwick Gallery curator Nora Atkinson was inspired by the maker community at Burning Man who create a vast range of elaborate artwork often at their own expense and then burn much of it down each year. It seemed like a natural fit for the Renwick, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s branch dedicated to American craft.

Marco Cochrane, “Truth is Beauty” (2013), stainless steel rod, stainless steel mesh (photo by Scott London)

“Modern craft started with the Industrial Revolution when everyone was concerned that we were going to lose ourselves to this mechanized world and that something in the human spirit was going to be missing,” Atkinson told me. “Here we are in the 21st century, 150 years later, and craft is popping up again in response to the new industrial revolution, the digital age.”

Burning Man began in 1986 when San Francisco artists Larry Harvey and Jerry James built a rough eight-foot-tall wooden figure from scrap lumber and dragged it to Baker Beach where they set it alight in a modern summer solstice ritual. The Burning Man became an annual tradition with a few hundred participants before it was banned by police in 1990 because of potential fire hazards, leading to its relocation to Black Rock Desert east of Reno in an otherworldly locale with no electricity, potable water, or other amenities, not to mention extreme conditions including blinding sandstorms, brutal heat waves, and freezing nights.

Duane Flatmo, “Rabid Transit” (2017), recycled found objects (photo by Duane Flatmo)

In 2005, I drove more than 1,000 miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Burning Man in my beat-up SUV with an even more beat-up bike strapped to the roof. After an eerie moonlit drive across the Bonneville Salt Flats and the barren pinon-studded hills of eastern Nevada, I arrived at Burning Man just in time for an epic sandstorm of white swirling dust that coated my sleeping bag, tent, clothes, and food in a fine layer of grit. But I still had an amazing time with my brother and an East Coast-West Coast contingent of “burners” from San Francisco and DC in a theme camp called Furtopia. When I moved from Santa Fe to DC a year later, many of those burners became longtime friends.

As a mixed-media artist, I was inspired by the unheralded artists who created these giant installations with no promise of monetary gain. Then there was a sense of community spirit where food and drink were shared among strangers, and nothing was sold by Burning Man staff except for ice and coffee. No “I Went to Burning Man” T-shirts, no posters, no food trucks, no corporate sponsors. There also is no real festival schedule, and visitors must bring everything they need to survive, including water for drinking and very brief handheld showers.

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man at the Renwick Gallery, installation view (photo by Ron Blunt)

Since my trip a decade ago, Burning Man has more than doubled in size, and some longtime burners keep wishing for the olden days when the festival wasn’t a networking event for the Silicon Valley set or a hip spot for celebrities and Victoria’s Secret models to post Instagram photos. There also is a cottage industry hawking Burning Man costumes, a mish mash of sci-fi fantasy, leather fetish, steam punk, and Road Warrior-esque post-apocalyptic wear, with an extra helping of studded bustiers, short shorts, and top hats thrown into the dusty mix. Some newcomers are derided as “sparkle ponies” who bring a dozen costume changes but no food or water and mooch off everyone around them.

The 10 Principles of Burning Man, including gifting and decommodification, also can feel like hollow slogans when wealthy people could buy $1,200 tickets during a pre-sale this year before cheaper tickets were available. Burning Man also has seen its share of tragedy, including the death of a 41-year-old man who ran past security personnel into the raging Burning Man sculpture last year.

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man at the Renwick Gallery, installation view (photo by Ron Blunt)

Atkinson, who went to Burning Man for the first time last year, said she initially was worried that Burning Man artists would shun the Renwick exhibition, but the free admission to the government-funded museum helped defuse the commodification argument. She said people were enthusiastic about the exhibition, and the Burning Man organization linked her with artists and other resources. The Renwick will also show archival Burning Man photos and historical documents from a previous exhibition by the Nevada Museum of Art.

“I hope I’m not the person who ruins Burning Man, but it was always better last year every year since it started in 1986,” Atkinson said with a laugh. “In some ways, I’m not sure it’s going to get more mainstream. It’s been in the public consciousness for a while. This exhibition is an opportunity for people to understand a lot more about the culture because there are a lot of misconceptions.”

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man at the Renwick Gallery, installation view (photo by Ron Blunt)

While the future of Burning Man is debated, artists have always been at its core, including Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson, the artist couple who created the Ursa Major sculpture that will reside for nine months on 19th Street NW in downtown DC. Robert Ferguson, who runs a commercial welding business, took a break from the installation to tell me about their improbable cross-country road trip to transport their 3,200-pound sculpture to DC. He and his wife Lisa were stunned when they heard a Smithsonian art museum wanted to display their beloved bear, which attracted impromptu dance parties and a lot of bear hugs at Burning Man in 2016.

“Everybody knows where the Smithsonian is and what it is and what it means. So we were like, ‘You bet!” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. I never saw myself doing anything like this. My wife and I met at Burning Man 10 years ago. We started making large art just because we could, and Burning Man gives you that opportunity. They are fantastic that way.”

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man at the Renwick Gallery, installation view (photo by Ron Blunt)

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man continues at the Renwick Gallery (Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW) through January 21, 2019. 

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Brendan L. Smith

Brendan L. Smith is a mixed-media artist, freelance writer, and arts educator in Washington, D.C. In past lives, he was a staff reporter for newspapers across...