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WASHINGTON DC — To appreciate No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man in the comparatively staid environment of the Smithsonian Museum’s Renwick Gallery, one must accept that much is missed when encountering these pieces out of their intended context. These artworks live most fully on what burners call the Playa: the vast flat lakebed of Black Rock Desert, where the ever-changing sky and irrepressible dust transform everything in their domain moment by moment, and where it would be considered a bit weird to simply look at a piece of art, politely — which is the only option at the Renwick. What, after all, is the “Temple” (2018), David Best’s memorial to the dead, without the sky’s illumination and colors streaming in through the lace-like woodwork of its walls? Without the growing collection of mementos crowding its interiors throughout the week? What is one of Michael Garlington’s monumental, lavish chapels, laden with baroque details, macabre, gothic photography, toys, and weird, old-fashioned tchotchkes, without the spectacular, sometimes painful razing of it at the end of the week? What is a piece of Burning Man art if you’re not allowed to touch it, observe its dialogue with the dynamic skyscape, and, finally, witness its ritualistic destruction?
Yet fussing over imperfect circumstances is not the Burning Man way: Erecting a city out of nothing in one of the world’s most inhospitable environments teaches us to not hold our ideals too dear, and to respect the forces, whether natural, legal, or bureaucratic, that rebuke compromise. It wouldn’t do for the Smithsonian to attempt to recreate either the physical environment or the casual, hands on ethos of the event; it was smart of curator Nora Atkinson, in collaboration with Burning Man Project, to narrow the exhibition’s focus to Burning Man’s history and growth, and, according to the press release, “exploring the maker culture, ethos, principles and creative spirit of Burning Man.” So, setting aside the inevitable concessions that accompany the museum context, how well does the exhibition achieve its stated aims?
While the works on display offer some insight into the “maker culture, ethos, principles, and creative spirit” of the festival, they collectively present a skewed and partial picture of the gathering. Some of the exhibited works are renowned flagship Burning Man art — or disappointing small copies of such pieces whose salient feature was their scale, like Marco Cochrane’s “Truth is Beauty,” which is 55 feet on the Playa and only 18 feet in the museum. Also featured are new works by perennial Burning Man favorites, such as Cochrane, the photographic/architectural installation team Garlington and Bertotti, temple designer David Best, steel sculptor Kate Raudenbush, and “digital painter” Android Jones.
The website burningman.org fields pitches from artists who hope to have their work displayed in some official manner on the Playa, and offers grants to the ones they choose. Though these works are often the most monumental in scale — privileged with appointed space, their destruction, if on the Playa, scheduled as a ceremony for attendees to witness — they are only a small part of what constitutes the maker culture and ethos of Burning Man. Seventy thousand people attend every year, several thousands of whom are involved in theme camps. There, they devise, finance, and build their own artistic creations, including visual art, live music, dance, and ornate and improbable “art cars.” Many more burners do the same independently. Honorarium art comprises but a small portion of the stimulation on the Playa. While it may be unreasonable to expect a balanced and faithful representation of everything that goes on in the world’s busiest temporary city, not doing so subverts the stated purpose of the exhibition.
A look at one area of the exhibition’s installations, the fashion — in which everyone at Burning Man participates — highlights the curatorial problem and the difference between what Burning Man and No Spectators respectively offer. Inevitably, money factors in: If the Burning Man Project is serious about correcting its reputation as a once-freewheeling countercultural phenomenon now evolved into a playground for the rich, its choice to exclusively feature high end and couture designs to represent the fashions at the famously flamboyant event is mystifying. Wallflower-like mannequins donning spectacular costumes by Paris-Based Indian designer Manish Arora flank the hall between installation spaces. They are indeed dazzling: suits in pastels and dayglo colors with iridescent armor plating, hand beading, embroidery, and sequin work that hint at the richness of motifs and materials in Indian textiles, while loudly (and I mean loudly) proclaiming the designer’s other-planetary aesthetic. Arora’s atelier hand-made the breathtaking garments and he wore them with panache on the Playa.
Other items on display include a studded bespoke leather corset from San Francisco’s celebrated corsetière Dark Garden (where ready-to-wear styles can easily reach $2,500), as well as items from various high end festival-wear designers — a relatively new industry that has flourished with the popularity of summer music and art festivals that inspire extravagantly dress. The only example of costuming on display that does not represent a several-hundred- to several-thousand-dollar expenditure is Jennifer George’s bib-style necklace “The Playa Provides,” made of gift charms and ornaments collected over the course of 11 years of Burning Man attendance.
While it is wholly accurate to represent the moneyed incarnations of the “burner” spirit — whatever that may be — it is outrageously inaccurate to ignore the other, far larger, and long-established population of burners who construct their own objects on a budget, with cleverness, originality, and their own hands. Despite the fact that this sprit continues to pervade Black Rock City, it is absent in the exhibition. There is the naked couple in Black Rock City wearing sunglasses with “censor-bar”-like rectangles glued on, sending up sanctioned censorship norms in our society; the woman wearing a cheerleader suit with clear plastic pockets on the skirt, full of various travel-size dental hygiene products to gift to Burners who forgot theirs; or a young designer in my camp who uses giant knitting needles to create fantastical, otherworldly stage costumes out of fluorescent yarn, on the performer’s body on the Playa, hours before our yearly drag show, in a virtuosic display of extempore creativity, speed, and skill.
Scattered among the near-naked throngs at the annual topless bike ride, one can always see women who have survived breast cancer, defiantly exposing their scarred chests to the sun and spectators alike, punching the air and howling as they ride by. The Playa is pullulating with creative, kind, brave, funny people who go unsung in an exhibition centered on a narrow, affluent segment of the Burning Man population. In contrast, No Spectators — organized in part by longtime burners — suggests that the art of Burning Man is chosen, financed, and executed by the few, and the rest of Black Rock City’s citizenry are, well, spectators.
No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man curated by Nora Atkinson in collaboration with Burning Man Project continues at the Renwick Gallery (Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th St. NW, Washington DC) through January 21, 2019.