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.
The building season has begun. As Moze posted recently, the Honorarium List is out. As one of this year’s honorarium artists I thought I’d give a little insight into how one comes to the conclusion to take on the monumental project of building The Temple for Burning Man.
It all began Sunday last year on the playa. Sunday for me has always been a day of reflection. Last year I woke up in a very reflective mood as the dust storm was raging…”Why on earth do I come out to this god forsaken hole”… <cough, cough> …”Why do I insist on making art in this inhospitable place”. Just as my pity party was in full swing my favorite art partner Rebecca Anders finds me and suggests we go on an OPA tour (Other Peoples Art tour). She had been having a similar morning of woe and needed to get away. Joined by Don Cain, of DSC, we went on a deep playa excursion to see what treasures we had missed during the week while we were installing Fishbug.
I’m writing from Room 906 in an undisclosed Reno hotel casino, or as we like to call it, 9 o’clock and R. It took me 20 minutes to get to the truck and back because every dusty Black Rock City refugee stopped and wanted to talk about Exodus and whether theirs was good or not so good. You can spot Burner cars in Reno, the really, really dusty ones loaded with all manner of camping necessities; the ones that other Burners have traced images of the Burning Man through the playa dust onto the clean paint below.
Sunday was a great day as we tore down the Man Museum so that our long timers wouldn’t be stuck with all the loading on Monday and Tuesday. As we were taking apart the shade, two bikes collided on the Esplanade out front and we ran over to them. The two girls involved stood up and hugged each other. No one was hurt and they went on their merry way. Only in Black Rock City do you have a “Hit and Hug”.
Yes, there were intermittent dust storms Saturday and Sunday, but that didn’t slow us down. Sunday was a party to celebrate cleaning up after our last party, which was a celebration of the previous party and so on.
Then we began getting ready for the night’s festivities and THAT MOMENT came about, the time when….
… the dry-pulverizing desert sunshine suddenly disappears with a pop, as the sun dips behind the Granite Range to the west of 34, and that harsh white daytime baking spotlight on the playa is replaced with a breathtaking cool gentle sky of gorgeous uterine pinks and blues that enchants and makes everyone so beautiful; makes the colors come alive, then it all slides slowly into a purple gray slate sky, and Black Rock City suddenly comes alive.
Dinners and cocktail parties are in full force and the Esplanade is packed with those going to and fro, all fabulous. Photographers live for that brief moment and they save up their shots to get there and shoot the Art. In camps, lights shake off the day’s dirt and start their twinkle and costumery is suddenly warm as shadows play tricks on the eye. Daytime sculptures go to sleep and the night time Art comes into focus as El-wire cars passing light up and suddenly make sense and take shape and everything is transformed as we slowly slide into the night time world where planets and grand constellations rise and dance across the sky with much felicity above our temporary bacchanal.
Sunday night the Moon rose full and heavy up over 2:15 to the south east and as citizens beheld it, a great howl arose from all parts of the City, a primal howl that made you look to the sky and see what they saw and in turn, howl yourself, because it felt right and good after all the time out here in this magnificent City.
If only all cities howled when the large moon rose close to the ground all around.
For those familiar with the emotional catharsis that can be discovered through the Burning Man experience—resonating both on and off the playa, and effecting real change in the worlds beyond Black Rock City—this story may strike a chord.
For Harley’s session, she worked with participants to build a Shrine dedicated to memorializing loss, with the plan to collectively burn it that evening. (Sound familiar?) Prior to the workshop, she sought the support of David Best—well-known to many Burners for initiating the annual tradition of building memorial Temples on the playa—in order to obtain materials and to learn tips on Temple construction from the master.
In facilitating the Shrine’s creation for retreat participants, Harley had them organize themselves into four groups—sorters, builders, decorators, and mavericks—in order to expedite various aspects of construction. But perhaps most importantly, she asked them to talk with one another about loss as they worked in their groups to create the Shrine, and to “get it real in their bodies.” For some—the great majority of whom had never been to Burning Man—this was more than they had bargained for.
Harley reports that some participants were soon sobbing out their grief, as they confronted various losses and deaths encountered in their lives. Later, the small groups were asked to report back to the rest. Harley recalled one woman in particular who spoke of “emptiness” and the difficulty of holding on to people and memories, as she held her hands gently cupped.