Reconnecting Art and Life at Burning Man
This article was originally published in Raw Vision, issue 57, Winter 2006:
By Christine Kristen aka LadyBee
Burning Man, an annual temporary community in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, is the world's largest outdoor art gallery, featuring nearly three hundred art installations scattered across a barren, prehistoric lake bed known as a playa. For one week late in August of each year, nearly 40,000 participants gather to create a vibrant city based on self-expression, survival, sharing, and radical self-reliance. Life in
Here, art is not viewed as the sole province of trained, educated specialists, as it is in the institutionalized world; it is part and parcel of everyday life for the citizens of Black Rock City, nearly all of whom produce objects for use and display during the event, from costumes and small items given out as gifts to large-scale art installations. Art-making in this way seems related to earlier societies, where decorating one's possessions and making objects was a natural expression of belonging to a group, and a way of making daily life meaningful. At Burning Man, the do-it-yourself ethic is the community standard, and aesthetics are enthusiastically explored by everyone, not just artists.
Neither is art viewed as the work of the isolated individual; virtually all of the larger works at Burning Man are produced collaboratively, bringing artists, crews, and participants together in a rich, immersive and immediate experience. This kind of empathic social interaction through art-making generates community on the playa and beyond, as participants return to their homes and create their own regional events in the style of
Steve Heck is a piano mover from
From 1996 to 1999, Burning Man participants were treated to unconventional folk operas performed on elaborate, fanciful architectural fantasies built by San Franciscan Pepe Ozan. In the early 1990's Pepe, born in
The Hanged One, made in 2001 by David Biggs, was a large tree made of driftwood hung with orange and yellow silk lanterns. The artist was a student at the
In 2002 the Extra Action Marching Band, a group of Bay area performers, built a replica of a 16th century Spanish galleon over a working school bus. This beautifully crafted, ghostly vessel, moving slowly with the wind in its sails, seemed to sail the desiccated seas of the playa. Another group of friends with diverse occupations built an enormous yellow duck; by night its wing was raised to reveal a sophisticated jazz club within. A large egg nearby served as a token booth. The previous year, the same group built a jazz club in the form of two enormous red dice.
In 2004, the Alien Semaphore, an array of white fluorescent tubes attached to a central horizontal pole, attracted much attention on the playa. One could move the tubes into different configurations via an interactive control box nearby. I assumed that the artist, Hedley Davis, had been influenced by Minimalist sculpture, and I asked him if he was a fan of Dan Flavin. He looked at me blankly and responded, "Who's Dan Flavin?" Hedley is an electrical engineer and self-described "hobbyist" from
Rosanna Scimeca of
However, there is another genre of art evolving at Burning Man which also seems to fit the parameters of outsider art, despite the fact that its creators have been trained in art schools. These artists choose to work outside of the confines of the art world in a very free and collaborative environment. In this world they are not restricted by art world standards; they are not trying to impress a critic, a collector or a gallery. Someone once remarked, "Burning Man is like art without the money." These artists are not thinking about the likelihood of selling their work; rather, they are creating it as a gift to the community. Even a gallery artist may work unfettered by notions of market value. This kind of creative freedom seems to encourage collaboration and cooperation between artists, rendering competition somewhat irrelevant. Burning Man has spawned an entirely new genre of outsider art, providing a working environment completely outside of the professional art world. Art made under these circumstances tends to be unconventional and genuine; artists are free to disregard the pressures of public and professional approval. It's the immediacy of the experience that is important; the artist gets direct feedback from the community, without worrying about reviews or sales.
A recent trend is the creation of large installations by community groups, only some of whose members are working artists. In 2005
Burning Man has spawned a new genre of art, and whether we consider it "insider" or "outsider" art hardly seems important. Some of it is made by untrained artists, and all of it lives outside of the conventional art world. At Burning Man, art-making is inclusive and does not require degrees or the approval of critics. In one sense this genre is not new at all, but harkens back to a time when there was no separation between art and life. The remaining question, perhaps, is one of quality: is all of this democratically produced art "good"? Clearly, some of the art is very accomplished and would stand up well to art world scrutiny; some is less so. In a community where the art is not intended to be sold or reviewed, but to generate community and interactivity, its aesthetic merit seems somewhat beside the point. In
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