The Man Base: Where Function Meets Artistry

[This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

As Burning Man is, if nothing else, a crucible for radical and avante garde self-expression, it’s no wonder that the city’s functional and infrastructural elements are so often imbued with creative artistry as well. And when base necessity meets with artistic inspiration, banal functionality is elevated beyond its original purpose, taking on altogether new forms.

La Contessa Mutant Vehicle, 2005
La Contessa Mutant Vehicle, 2005

Public transportation takes the form of the magnificent roving sculptures that are Mutant Vehicles. Personal transportation (bicycles) are transformed into rolling exhibitions of personal inventiveness. Illuminating the city at night with kerosene lanterns becomes a deeply-ritualized activity. The city itself is a work of functional art, designed such that one can see the Man from every street corner. Even the street signs are meticulously hand-crafted to mirror the given year’s art theme.

In the following essay, originally published on the Burning Man website, Rod Garrett explains how the Man Base (the pedestal upon which the Man stands) evolved from basic functional need to an elevated work of interactive art.

The Man and the Plinth

Standing at the geometric apex of Black Rock City is the collective icon of The Man. This figure represents nothing expressed or explicable, yet is a physical and ethical guidepost for fifty thousand people during at least one week of the year.

The Man, 1993
The Man, 1993

In the beginning, the Man stood and was burned directly on the playa. Nearing the millennium, we began to see increasingly greater assemblies at the “Burn” – marking the end of the event. Concerned that the ever-larger assembly was blocking full view of the “Man” for many, we employed a stopgap measure of mounting the figure on stacked hay bales. However, as the pyre was consumed in flame, bits of charred straw were lifted, showering the open playa. This made our “Leave No Trace” policy quite problematic, so that practice ended.

At about the same time, we were seeing increasingly large installations on the central playa. It was not difficult to project that the preeminent figure of The Man might become dwarfed by future installations. As there was no wish to increase the height of the figure itself, Larry Harvey and Rod Garrett began to consider other ways of elevating the Man. This initiated what became an ongoing series of theme-related base structures.

These structures have also served as viewing platforms, plus social and meditative spaces, while allowing proximity to the Man. Over the years, they have been additionally employed as theaters, interactive exhibitions, participatory puzzles, galleries, marriage chapels, and monumental installations in their own right.

2001 - The Temple of Wisdom
The Temple of Wisdom, 2001

The Temple of Wisdom (popularly referred to as “the big A”) was our first effort at a construction to elevate the Man. The four legs provided ladder access and egress to a room at the top with commanding views down the Promenades.

The Lighthouse, 2002
The Lighthouse, 2002

The Lighthouse was not just part of the centerpiece of our city, but also aligned with our radial streets and with our year’s theme… The Floating World. “Seen in plan, this lighthouse formed a perfect compass: triangular benches had been stationed around its perimeter like compass points. In proper nautical fashion, each of these was divided into bilaterally symmetric black and white fields whose juncture demarcated an exact vector. This pattern of contrasting color bands continued on the railings of the two-tiered structure: wherever facets met, black and white adjoined. Thus, with the aid of a map, one could employ the lighthouse as a compass that would locate artworks on the open playa.” (Larry Harvey – ‘The Early Years’).

The Great Temple, 2003
The Great Temple, 2003

With the lighthouse we had established a strong link between the practical aspects of the structure and the annual theme. With the theme – Beyond Belief, it became a more interactive experience as well. Being nearly 100 feet wide at the base, the Great Temple was quite grand. Along the base were niches occupied by participants posing as living icons. Thematic venues and art filled the interior, and within all were sanctums housing altars dedicated to gifts and remembrances destined for passage with the fire.

The Observatory, 2004
The Observatory, 2004

The Observatory was a planetarium for The Vault of Heaven. It incorporated a wooden geodesic dome as the Man’s perch. Indented in its outer circumference were ten small stages designed to function as dioramas: scenic representations of other habitable worlds, and within them groups of people gave theme-related performances.

The Fun House, 2005
The Fun House, 2005

The Fun House represented the joy and anguish, indeed the twist and turns of Psyche. As in a dream, the Man slowly spun on his all-seeing tower over the labyrinthine interior of a circus tent. His counterpart, Laughing Sal, was posted at the entry. In this instance, the Man was engineered to rotate on a circular steel track throughout the week. This was the first of his animations beyond the raising of his arms immediately prior to the burn.

The Pavilion of the Future, 2006
The Pavilion of the Future, 2006

The Pavilion of the Future for the theme Hope and Fear took a different direction. The Man’s arms, as well as the Man himself, simultaneously rose and fell in accordance with gauged swings in the hopes and fears of the community. The complexity of the engineering far exceeded what was anticipated, but it all worked. The subtext of this year, “The Road to U(dys)topia,” was a harbinger of the following year’s theme.

Mountains and Hills, 2007
Mountains and Hills, 2007

Mountains and Hills seemed the place for The Green Man. Emphasizing social consciousness, all the construction materials were to be recycled except the three massive king-posts holding up the structure and Man. These logs were salvaged from a mountain tract, which was to be bulldozed and burnt off. The main structure – the Mountain, was a huge meditative space centered around a sand garden. It was flanked by the Hills – two long, rolling structures, which housed information and displays on cutting edge advances in ecological technology.

American Dream, 2008
American Dream, 2008

This theme was about nationality, identity and the nature of patriotism. As counterpoint to The American Dream, Burning Man stands atop an obelisk emblazoned with flags representing the countries of the world. This was a sixty-six foot high box beam monument. Interior cabling anchored it against the potential 70 MPH winds, to deep foundation blocks. It contained three levels of viewing platform around a core of stairways.

The Tangled Bank, 2009
The Tangled Bank, 2009

The Tangled Bank was the name given to the structure for the theme of Evolution. “Nature never made a plan, nor does it seem to copy very well. No living thing is ever quite the same as others of its kind. Charles Darwin called this Natural Variation.” – Larry Harvey.

In this spirit, we broke with all tradition and embraced the chaotic. The sculptural assembly represents a nebulous and branching path — both in form and in actual construction. Not finely drawn, but wittingly open to the creativity and expression of the carpenter/artists, it would evolve rather than be built.

Metropolis, 2010
Metropolis, 2010

The theme Metropolis set a dialogue between the Black Rock City citizenry and the experts on the future of urban life. This year’s design was referenced in Art Deco construction, and emphasized the structure and transparency.

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.

4 thoughts on “The Man Base: Where Function Meets Artistry

  • This is an interesting article and I enjoy the retrospective, but some of the information is a little bogus. These are the the design notes and renderings – the intention of the artist. The reality of these structures varied more or less depending on the building conditions and logistics. it’s worth noting for example that the 2005 man did not “slowly spin”; he spun furiously as participants worked the mechanism with greater enthusiasm and coordination than anyone had predicted! Also unmentioned are the beautiful rooms that comprised the maze within the 2005 base and the bare, echoing chambers that comprised the ground floor of the 2006 base. … I could go on. These pieces told stories. I’m glad for this article to remind me of them, but new folks should know that most of them aren’t told here.

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  • It should be noted that the rotating man of 2006 also “broke” from all the burners’ enthusiasm by mid-week, and it was hands-off after that. The man’s rotation also totally honked up anyone’s guess as to his/her own orientation, where in prior years one could approximate the “o’clock” based on how the man looked from any given vantage point.
    The wild adventure through the fun house of 2005 was surely the pinnacle of fun at the man that I ever had. I still feel awe for the team that put it together. 50 or more diverse rooms on two levels, plus an observation deck above it and below the man. So many interactive rooms, delightful rooms, bizarre rooms, and confusing rooms; there were technological, visual, and gustatorial challenges to be overcome or welcomed. For me, that was the “ne plus ultra” of all the structures the man has ever stood on, and will stand in my memory as the greatest concentration of diverse, sensory overload I’ve ever had the ecstatic pleasure of experiencing.

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  • The Temple of Wisdom was the end of journey of the “Seven Stages of Man” and could be accessed by having your passport stamped at various locations around BRC. Inside the 3:00 entry in the lower part of the pillar was a room where people were invited to leave their stuff and climb one of the two ladders into the room just below the man. Inside on the walls was a painting of the black rock desert minus the city and chaos.

    The lighthouse had a similar small room under the man way up inside the base. To gain access one needed a golden coin from the treasure hunt. It was not uncommon late at night for golden treasure hunt coins to come flying back out of the lighthouse so everyone had a chance at entry. Inside the pillar was a series of ladders to the next platform to the top.

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