[Lee Gilmore teaches Religion & Anthropology at California State University Northridge and is author of Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]
As travelers, historians, and archaeologists can tell you, great cities contain spiritual and ritual centers–physical manifestations of the human quest for the transcendent and magisterial. Grand cathedrals, imposing temples, and mosques with soaring minarets–each an attempt to intersect both divine and earthly powers. For Black Rock City, that heart is perhaps best identified with the annual Temples–each an ephemeral locus of memory and mourning.
Rod Garrett tells us that the origins of BRC’s famous layout of concentric circles lay in pragmatic and organic decisions. Nevertheless, when viewed through a symbolic lens, its template readily suggests a labyrinth or mandala. The placement of the Man at the BRC’s center readily evokes what historian of religion Mircea Eliade called the axis mundi–a symbolic manifestation of the sacred center of the cosmos and the location of hierophany–the eruption of the sacred into the profane world. As both the spatial center and temporal apex towards which each annual event is definitively aimed, The Man forms axis of space and time in Black Rock City.
Yet over the course of the past decade, the sacred heart of Burning Man has shifted a few hundred yards outward. Where the Burning of the Man can bring joy, catharsis, and transformation sharpened into a singular, ecstatic moment, Temples’ rites can engender a deeper and perhaps more difficult self-examination in asking us to consider our own mortality. The Temples grew out of tragedy and immediacy when Petaluma artist David Best first transformed his 2000 playa installation called the Temple of the Mind into an impromptu memorial for a friend who had died in the weeks just before the event that year.
In 2001, a similar but significantly expanded structure would be called the Temple of Tears where all Black Rock Citizens were invited to inscribe memorials upon ornate wooden walls and to leave behind photos and other objects of personal significance. As my friend and colleague Sarah Pike has noted, through the physical inscription of memories on the Temple’s walls, and in turn through reading the inscriptions of others, participants were able to share, ritualize, and transform private grief into public expression in ways that are generally unavailable to many contemporary Americans. Finally, on the festival’s final night, the Temple and its tokens were ultimately offered up in flame, dust, and ashes as thousands looked on in reverential silence.
This ritual has since become a cornerstone of BRC’s annual traditions–providing a contemplative space in which to reflect on some of life’s bigger questions concerning transience, meaning, and love. Conceived and guided by David Best from 2001-2004 (and once again in 2007), he eventually handed off design and leadership to other members of the Burning Man community. For example, this year’s Temple of Flux is being planned and constructed by a collective of participants affiliated with the Flaming Lotus Girls, the Shipyard, and other communities led by Rebecca Anders, Jessica Hobbs, and Peter Kimelman. (One of the artists reflected further on her inspiration for this year’s Temple here.) Expanding their ritual intention, this team writes:
To lead our design thinking we look to the idea of Counter-Monument. A phrase coined by James Young to define a new way of thinking about memorial/monument: The counter-monument’s aim is not to console but to provoke; not to embody permanence but change; not to be everlasting but to disappear; not to be ignored but to demand interaction; not to accept the burden of memory but to throw it back and demand response. The counter-monument accomplishes what all monuments should; it reflects back to the people and thus codifies their own memorial projections and preoccupations.
If the Temple is Black Rock City’s “church,” it is a space where religious impulses rest lightly upon themselves, leaving plenty of room for personal interpretations and expression while providing ritualized nudges towards introspection, connection, and transformation. And unlike the renowned cathedrals and temples of history, as a “counter-monument,” the Temple serves not as Black Rock City’s seat of divine authority or civic power, but rather as a decentralized, collective, and participatory nexus of creation and destruction, intimacy and spectacle, love and death.