The Burning Man School of Art: 2008 Art Preview

Dan Das Mann handiwork, photo by John Curley
A Dan Das Mann devotional figure, photo by John Curley

The realities of creating artwork (or a theme camp, or anything else of reasonably large scale) at Burning Man fairly demand a communal effort. In fact, one of the most pertinent questions asked in the art grant discovery process is, “Who is your community?” This seemingly innocuous question is intended to determine whether the artist has identified a support network, a team with whom they will work, fundraise, and build their project.

This communal (and in some cases, consensus-based) creative model has several beneficial effects. First, the likelihood of the project’s success is exponentially increased. Secondly, the community immediately surrounding the artist invariably gels and becomes stronger by virtue of the team’s shared struggle. Finally, and most interestingly, team-based efforts become a sort of modern-day apprenticeship program. Burning Man has seen a number of artists hone their skills on somebody else’s team before venturing forth to head up their own projects.

Kate Raudenbush's "Altered State" in progress, photo by John Curley
Kate Raudenbush's "Altered State" in progress, photo by John Curley

The compelling part of this dynamic is its cyclically self-perpetuating nature. It carries and nurtures within it the seed of its own continuance. As more artists succeed, in larger and more impressive ways, their community (read: team) gets better at working together in all aspects of the creative process, allowing them to attempt yet more ambitious projects. As these teams grow and improve their skills, more and more apprentices will spin off to become artists in their own right, further feeding the cycle. Indeed, what is sometimes half-jokingly deemed the “Burning Man School of Art” may not be a joke at all. There is certainly ample evidence to attest to the veracity of that seemingly fanciful description.

Many artists could be considered “graduates” of the Burning Man School of Art. They have successfully built upon their experiences creating artwork for the playa to launch artistic careers in the world at large. These artists have exhibited their works (sometimes, with the assistance of Burning Man’s non-profit sister organization, the Black Rock Arts Foundation) in mainstream – or even Main Street – settings outside the event.

Kate Raudenbush, photo by John Curley
Kate Raudenbush, photo by John Curley

Indeed, civic installations of Burning Man art have brought off-playa exposure to some of our community’s most beloved artists. As of this writing, Peter Hudson’s “Homoroborous” delights visitors in downtown San Jose, Michael Christian’s “Koilos” straddles San Francisco’s Hayes Green, and Kate Raudenbush’s “Guardian of Eden” stands proudly outside the Reno Museum of Art. Still other Burning Man artists have “graduated” from the school when pieces they created for Black Rock City were commissioned to appear at other large-scale public events, such as the Coachella (CA), Bonnaroo (TN) and Rothbury (MI) music festivals. Traipsing through the exhibition spaces of these enormous events, one encounters a veritable museum of art from Black Rock City’s past.

In 2008, many of those “graduates” and many “newly enrolled” students will bring new creations to share with us in Black Rock City.

Michael Christian's "Elevation" under construction, photo by John Curley
Michael Christian's "Elevation" under construction, photo by John Curley

Among them are Michael Christian (“I.T.”, “Hypha”), who returns with a new piece entitled “Elevation”, a 54-foot tall climbable mountain constructed of intricately winding steel ladders, and the Flaming Lotus Girls (“The Serpent Monther”, “Angel of the Apocalypse”), who are developing an altogether new form of fire art construction with their sculpture “Mutopia”, which will use propane not only to create flame, but also to drive its hydraulic mechanisms. New York’s Kate Raudenbush (“Guardian of Eden”) will construct a resplendent replica of the United States Capitol building entitled “Altered State”, incorporating a mirage of mythical creatures and Native American imagery in a skeletally-etched white “birdcage,” complete with swings. Artist-cum-magician Peter Hudson (“Homoroborous”, “Sisyphus”) will create another of his astonishing interactive zoetropes, this one entitled “Tantalus” – the details of which remain firmly under wraps, true to Hudson’s tradition.

The Flaming Lotus Girls' "Mutopia" under construction, photo by John Curley
The Flaming Lotus Girls' "Mutopia" under construction, photo by John Curley

Still more Burning Man artists from previous years will return in 2008, including Taos, New Mexico’s Christian Ristow (“Cat’s Cradle”) who will be creating a giant hydraulically-actuated hand entitled “Hand of Man”. Laura Kimpton, Bob Hoffman, and Jeff Schomberg will return with the flaming sculptures of the “Celtic Forest”; “Shiva Vista”, the giant rhythmically sequenced fire stage by Reno artist Dave King will also be reprised. The Department of Spontaneous combustion will again roam the playa on their six hand-built pedal-powered fire machines called “Pswarm”, each shooting 40-foot plumes of flame into the air.

Several first-time grant recipients have also been awarded. Two grants for fire projects have been awarded to San Francisco-based False Profit Labs, who will construct an interactive fire sculpture called PyroCardium, a 15-foot tall helix with twenty computer-controlled flames that will respond to the human heartbeat when a stethoscope attached to the sculpture is placed against the viewer’s chest. False Profit Labs will also exhibit Hydrogen Economy, a 15-foot tall, clear hexagonal prism filled with floating hydrogen bubbles. Participants will wield flaming “dragon wands” to ignite explosions of hydrogen, oxygen, and propane.

Another first-time grant recipient is Welsh artist Dafaid Daf a Joe, whose sculpture, “Man Gwyn Man Draw”, will display an eerie regiment of sheep arrayed beside a swaying field of “wheat.” This piece will evoke the Welsh experience in the nineteenth century when thousands fled their native land and emigrated to the New World, in search of an imagined American Eden.

Shrine, photo by John Curley
Shrine, photo by John Curley

When David Best and the Temple crew announced that they would not be building a temple in 2008, a palpable murmur rippled across Burning Man lists and message boards everywhere, anticipating the void that would be left without this beloved spiritual center in Black Rock City. But artists Shrine and TukTuk (“Tasseograph”) have stepped up to lead an effort to construct a reimagined version of our city’s contemplative temple out beyond the Burning Man on the 12 o’clock promenade. Shrine and his team are renowned for creating spectacular meditative spaces, repurposing recycled and reclaimed materials in strikingly beautiful ways. Entitled “Basura Sagrada” (or “Sacred Trash”), this temple will be an interactive structure in more than one sense. It will enable participants to compose upon it their missives to the unknown, as has become traditional with our temples – but its very creation and construction will also invite interaction. For more information, visit www.basurasagrada.org.

"Basura Sagrada" construction site, photo by John Curley
"Basura Sagrada" construction site, photo by John Curley

Whether you’re an artist, or want to be one, The Burning Man School of Art – as it were – is accepting enrollment by all who wish to apply. The Burning Man community is a place that naturally encourages creative voices, and offers a cultural context in which the potential in every participant might flourish. New groups of prolific and talented Burning Man artists are constantly emerging, and it’s exciting to contemplate the impact their creative offerings will have on the world.

Learn more about creating artwork for the playa by visiting the art installations section of our website. To register an art installation for 2008, visit our forms site, or visit the ARTery at Burning Man prior to installing your piece.

About the author: Will Chase

Will Chase first attended Burning Man 2001. He was Burning Man's Web Team Project Manager and Webmaster from 2004-2009, and the Operations Manager and member of the Art Council for the ARTery (Burning Man's art department headquarters in Black Rock City) from 2003-2008. In 2009, he transitioned into the Communications Department, where his responsibilities include global communication strategy, authoring the Jackrabbit Speaks Newsletter, content management for the Burning Man website, coordination of Burning Man's social networking efforts, and acting as editor for the Burning Blog. Tales of his sordid adventures can be found on his website.

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