Why do I go to Burning Man? Why do I return to that inhospitable, crowded (61,000 people this year), loud, dirty place? This year was my fifth time. My lungs, nose and eyes burn from the dust, and I always come home with a head cold or some other malady. Everything necessary to live for 9 days must be carried in and carried out. We drive 16 hrs and wait in long lines to enter and exit the event. My record is 8hrs in line to leave in 2011 and that pales compared to other people’s stories. The “bathrooms” aka port-a- potties can be smelled for blocks and I have seen unspeakable things that I pray to erase from my mind. Oh and did I mention that Burning Man is expensive! I have vacationed in Hawaii in a beach front condo for less than it costs to do Burning Man.
SO WHY ON EARTH WOULD I RETURN YEAR AFTER YEAR??!!!
Because it is magic… It is a physical manifestation of human potential. Human potential is awe inspiring and I know it is present, for some, in science and technology. But for me as an artist who expresses and reacts to this world through creating tangible objects Burning Man is my touchstone for human potential. It is an entire world and community that is created from the ground up in a dried up lake bed. It is the closest thing that I will experience to going to a different world.
First off the land is breathtaking in its stark desolateness. The vista goes on and on with the biggest brightest sky. It is what I imagine infinity to look like if it could be expressed visually. The mountains ring the playa and reflect the rising and setting of the sun and the moon. Your relationship to the movement of the sun and the moon is brought into practical clarity.
Then the Art! You will see art at Burning Man that you will never see anywhere else, and not one or two pieces but a city full of magical art created in scales that for me, as an artist, are unfathomable; a 55ft tall sculpture of a woman that stretches and reaches towards the sky with a wish for all women everywhere to be safe. The word “believe” written in 15ft letters set against the horizon, arches and structures made of metal and wood interacting and creating a conversation with their environment and the people that witness them. This is not art in a museum that is encased in a glass case or locked behind velvet ropes not to be touch or caressed. This is art that you walk up to and feel with your hand or your whole body. This is art that people climb on and sleep in. This is art that makes music, moves or blows flames when you interact with it. There are mutant cars that are jellyfish and bugs and full sized boats. The lights at night put Vegas to shame. But I am not here to tell you about all about Burning Man, I could not nor do I desire to try. Just take a little dip into Goggle and you will find more information than you can process.
I want to continue to talk about and explore my relationship to this simultaneously grotesque and utterly beautiful place.
I am a person raised without organized religion. I am strongly drawn to the icons of many different religions as anyone familiar with my art would attest to. The temple at Burning Man is one of the things that makes me come back. It truly belongs to the community. It is non denominational, it is bigger than any individual religion. Everyone is invited to bring their burdens and lay them down literally; you are encouraged to write your wishes, your secrets, and your deep losses on the walls of the temple itself. People bring and build shrines to their lost loved ones human and animal. They sit and weep, yell and sing, meditate and sleep. There is something that happens when you walk through the temple surrounded by all these intense emotions of fear, loss, pain, hope and desire. There is oneness… unity… It doesn’t matter the specifics of the individual loss or hope we all universally share these sorrows, pain and hope. Most of us are desperately trying to find peace with them and figure out a better way to be on this earth. I am an introvert and find connecting with people sometimes challenging. Spending time in the temple through the years I have had some of the most beautiful exchanges with complete strangers. I have felt deeply loved and seen by someone that knows nothing of my day to day trappings of success or political leanings. Those moments though short in duration live in my heart and give me hope for humanity.
I believe the power and importance of fire lives within our DNA and in our modern lives with the flick of a switch we have both light and heat. Not many of us interact closely with fire on a daily or even regular basis. At Burning Man, as evident in the name, there is a lot of fire. The art cars blow plumes of flames so often that by the end of the week your fail to jump or barely notice. But when 60,000 people stop and sit down to watch the joyful celebration of burning a community effigy it is pretty powerful. To feel the physical jolt of riotous explosions and the whoosh of heat on your face that bathes everyone around you in the most beautiful light. And Damn! do the Burners know how to do fireworks. No slow tasteful displays of color waiting for one firework to fade before the other starts. Riots of color and sound and light that go on and on in a crazy cacophony that somehow manages to work. Many artists build amazing intricate huge pieces with thousands of hours of work in them and then they burn them, they let them go completely; they only exist for a limited period of time. I hope to get the privilege and challenge of doing that someday. Letting go of attachment is a lesson the repeats itself at Burning Man over and over. Attachment to cleanliness… attachment to comfort… attachment to control… attachment to beauty… Everything is temporary.
When the temple burns it is a quiet beautiful affair. It is probably the first time you will find something close to quiet. It is unbelievably powerful to watch all that energy, the pain, the love, the anguish, the anger, the hope, the dreams released in a carnal roar of flames into the sky. The temple is almost always constructed in a way that it becomes more beautiful as it burns with the details and cutouts illuminated by the flames. There are mini smoke tornados that are created by the intense heat and wind that dance and swirl away from the burning temple. They look like dark spirits with embers for feet being set free.
There are many things outside of the physical inconveniences of Burning Man that I do not like or endorse. Issues that I struggle with every time I return and wonder if it is something I want to support and participate in. Burning Man is very elitist and white. It seems like funny things to associate with a giant alternative hippy festival but it is very accurate. Burning Man is not cheap or accessible to many, many people. Even with low income ticket programs and shared rides. It is not an expense you’re going to undertake if you are a nonwhite single mother living below the poverty line. I am not an expert on diversity and privilege by any means and speak my words with a shaky voice. But I don’t think you have to scratch the surface very deeply to see that Burning Man is a game whose entry requires a certain level of “privilege”. The amount of money and energy that is invested into making Burning Man happen both on a person level and organizational level is staggering. I find myself wondering what could be accomplished in our world if that money and energy were focused on a social issue. Burning Man is not environmentally sound. There are actions and pieces that address a more sustainable relationship with the environment such as bicycles as a primary source of transportation and a philosophy of “leave no trace”. But there is still an enormous amount of garbage that is generated and fossil fuels consumed. For many people Burning Man is also like a giant Frat party with unbelievable amounts of alcohol and other substances consumed and the not so charming behaviors that accompany such excess imbibing.
So… Wow! Again why would I expend so much energy to attend such a flawed and challenging event? I think the extreme dichotomy of magic and disgust is part of what keeps me returning. Learning to balance and live in a world that is made up both beauty and horror. It is amplified in the environment of Burning Man but it is the same contradiction we live with everyday in the regular world. It is the thing I strive to capture in my artwork. The beauty that is found in the worn, discarded, and abandoned. The patina created by the strength and tenacity of human spirit, that is colored by owning our scars, wounds, and flaws right alongside our magic, lightness, and joy. That is me. That is my art. That is why I go to Burning Man.