Art in the Middle of Nowhere


For years, friends told me I should go to Burning Man. Besides not having the time or the money, a lot of what I'd heard about the week-long festival in the Nevada desert didn't sound like my thing.

But… I do like art, and there's a lot of it there. So I went this year, and I was not disappointed.

The Anti-Museum

It's not the usual art experience. You ride your bike across the playa (a dried-up lake bed) and check out various art installations, all spread hundreds of yards apart. Lots of them are interactive, so you may have to investigate or do a little work to get your aesthetic fix.

It’s All About Perspective

One day I came across a variety of colored letter blocks, just like you played with as a toddler—except some of these were big enough to climb on. A few were smaller and mounted on metal poles. It all seemed random until I sat down in a chair placed in a specific spot, and beheld:

Photo of “Perspective” by Chris Gray.

Photo of “Discofish” by Chris Gray.Art Cars

One of the constants of Burning Man is the presence of art cars—vehicles spiffed up in some way beyond the norm. Many are large enough to fit a DJ, sound system, and dance floor to accommodate all the folks who run up and hop on. Most that I saw were giant animals of some sort—dragons, insects, dinosaurs, snails, chickens, and cats that meow.

My favorite was Duane Flatmo’s “El Pulpo Mecanico,” a steampunk octopus that shoots flames from its tentacles:

Photo of “El Pulpo Mecanico” Chris Gray.

Here’s a video of "El Pulpo Mecanico":

“El Pulpo Mecanico” by Duane Flatmo. Video by MarkDayComedy.

The Final Rite of Passage

Nobody can deny that jets of fire are really cool, but good art usually goes beyond being merely awesome, and makes us think. Peter Hudson’s masterpiece, “Charon,” did that for a lot of people.

Photo of “Charon” by Chris Gray.

A 30-foot wooden wheel features life-size skeleton representations of the boatman Charon, who in Greek mythology ferried souls from the land of the living to that of the dead. Audience members tug back and forth on giant ropes to get the wheel spinning, and once it hits a certain speed, a strobe light turns on. Suddenly, the blur of skeletons in different poses becomes a succession of moving rowers. Oohs and aaahs are heard as minds are blown. It’s hard to convey the effect on video, but this one does a decent job:

“Charon” by Peter Hudson. Video by cannatari.

The artist is using the principles of stroboscopic motion, making a kind of zoetrope, which was a motion toy that came before motion pictures. This was the best art I experienced at Burning Man, and not just because it made use of the kind of motion eye candy I really dig. It also required its audience to work in order for it to do its thing, and then it encouraged them to think about the inevitability of death, and what we can do with our time on Earth.

Maybe at some point, pieces like this will find their way to a museum, where we expect art to be. But it’s worth seeking out in other environments, as a reminder that our relationship to art can be more than just as audience members, and we can make creativity a part of our daily lives.

If you’d like to learn more, there are tons of photos and videos online, as well as plenty of detailed information in this giant Burning Man Art Guide (PDF file).

Photos credit: Chris Gray (rienchien)


Author Bio:

Chris Gray is an Extra Help Librarian. He still is not a fan of the desert heat, but you know, at least it’s a dry heat.

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