In its last weekend of exhibition, I ventured down to the Cincinnati Art Museum to witness firsthand some of the magic from the notorious Burning Man.
When I first walked in, I felt like I had stepped into another realm. Big, illuminated mushroom sculptures opened and closed their caps above me like a living, breathing forest. However, they were far from being alive. Constructed out of panels of corrugated plastic, steel and neon lights, these art pieces were one of many featured in this past year’s Burning Man Festival, themed “No Spectators.” Like many readers, I am sure, I had little background knowledge on what exactly took place at this desert art show. The original “Burning Man” was made by a small group of artists and countercultural eclectics, mainly from the San Francisco area. They took their statue to Baker Beach on Labor Day of 1986 to light it on fire. The burning became a tradition among the artists every year after attracting many Californians to witness it.
As crowd sizes increased, relocation was inevitable. Thus, in 1990, all were invited to spend their Labor Day weekend in Black Rock, Nevada — home to nothing but expansive flat desert. Since then, the first group of 80 has grown to over 70,000 participants annually, leaving many coveting the tickets they could not attain.
Simply put, the festival is an eccentric art show. Artists have been known to spend their whole year building massive sculptures, projects and presentations just to caravan their work to Burning Man. These artists, typically called “Burners,” insist that their pieces be interactive. In the Cincinnati exhibit, I witnessed a trailer made to look like a vintage theater, silent film with velvet stadium seating included. Another piece was an LED kaleidoscope of colors mounted to the ceiling, inviting participants to lay down and watch the images bend overhead.
At the festival, the only expectation of participants is to live under the ten principles: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy. From these guidelines, a dazzling array of people — just as strange and diverse as the art they make — is born. From my perspective, they see art as an experience rather than an observation, seeping their creativity into the core of who they are.
In addition to the construction of “the Man,” a team also builds what is called “the Temple” each year, giving a deeply spiritual aspect to the festival. Here, the ruckus of the festival is softened into contemplative silence. Burners are invited to write letters to their past selves, names of loved ones they have lost or worries that they are unable to let go. On the last night of the festival, a more serene ceremony occurs: the burning of the Temple.
People gather in respect for each other, honoring their losses and letting go. Described as a very cathartic experience, I believe the emotional care that Burning Man offers is what entreats newcomers and retains the existing population of Burners.
A large wall entitled “Before I die, I want to…” concludes the exhibit and invites guests to write their responses in chalk. As I glanced over the overlapping responses, I had to hold back tears. “I want to be the man my wife married,” one person had written while many others said they wanted to travel or live without fear.
The mission of Burning Man that I had been trying to grasp all afternoon had finally set in: I understood how this experience can transform one’s life. In that instance, I felt as if I were truly a part of something greater, like the way one feels close to the ocean when they hold a conch shell to their ear and close their eyes, or perhaps, like a fire was burning inside me.
By Aleya Justison | Guest Writer