Burning Man Demystified, Part 3

This will be my last post on the Burning Man Festival. It’s a continuation of two earlier posts, written almost as soon as I returned, and published on Blogger. Throughout I’ve tried to prove the statement in Part 1: “Whoever can find time and money enough to go, should go.”

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I mean, look at something like that christening, that my group arranged for me in the forest of Poland. Well, there was an example of something that had all the elements of theater: it was worked on carefully, it was thought about carefully, it was done with exquisite taste and magic. And they had in fact created something! In this case it was in a way just for an audience of one, just for me, but they created something, that had ritual, love, surprise, denouement — beginning, middle, and end.
-Andre Gregory, My Dinner with Andre

The Art at Burning Man

I went to a high school in Northern California, and was privy to all sorts of terrible art, most of which was inspired by a belief in self-expression. In my high school English class, for example, we were given no instructions about how to do our final project. One girl stood up, played Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” on a boombox, and said: “This song is full of meaning for me right now.” That was fine. If she had been overcome with emotion, and unable to press the “play” button on the CD player, even then, we would have understood.

So Burning Man made me a little nervous. I thought that the desert full of “art” might be full of good ideas only half-executed, or full of nebulous abstract fingerpaintings…or full of drab gallery pieces, like one sees in gentrified towns in the California wine country.

The art was the result of an incredible investment of time and money on the part of both the artists, and the Burning Man art division, run by a figure (mysterious to me) known as Lady Bee. Most of it had a psychedelic bent, but it wasn’t limited by that tradition: the main psychedelic influences were the exuberant use of color, and the exploitation of so much open space for spectacle. The art borrowed from Dada a playful emphasis on interactivity.

Look at Dali. His shocking, distorted dream-images appear against pure skies and flat, usually brown plains, intensifying the sensation of space and events taking place inside the mind. The “playa” is a similarly absolute, Cartesian space. Even an abandoned bicycle is stark against the cracked ground; you can imagine, then, the feeling of coming across an actual creative work. The organizers make sure the playa is big enough to thin out crowds. I had a nearly continual feeling of serendipity, as one piece of art faded into the hazy dust, and another appeared.

About two-thirds of the way to the edge of the playa, I stopped at a structure of metal bars with rows of twine, and discarded plastic bottles suspended at intervals across the twine. On the bottles were discs of metal: more trash. The bottles twisted in the wind, and as they spun around, the stowaway metal looked to be the very incarnation of Joyce’s “sun flung spangles, dancing coins.”

This is, of course, quite like the pieces of real and imagined “trash art” in DeLillo’s Underworld. It is quite common to find pieces of art on the playa that bring to mind contemporary painting or sculpture currently on exhibit, or bits of a novel, or Frank Lloyd Wright. Art at Burning Man is year-round art; it is engaged with the rest of the world. There was no card explaining that the plastic soda bottles were trash, or explaining how the artist used the natural environment (relentless wind and sun) to create kinetic and dazzling beauty. The art did what it must to find a permanent place. It was a reconciliation between the givens of the nonhuman world, and an unmistakable constructed elegance. The “found” mobile was a fragment of a way of life.

There were some pieces of art that were simply fun. I was particularly fond of a phone booth that read Pacific Hell, and not because of the name, which is a meaningless pun. Seeing the name, I ignored the phone booth (which had a working light and a closeable door in the middle of the desert). Other people picked up the phone, heard a dial tone, and found out that they could dial any number in the world — it was a fully functional satellite phone, if you had enough curiosity to put it against your ear. I was reminded of a startling moment, unique in my experience, at Yoko Ono’s SFMOMA exhibit Yes. I came to a green apple, partially eaten, on a museum stand, complete with an exhibit card that said something like “APPLE (2002). Mixed media and fruit.” Looking in terror at the security guard, I gradually reached my hand out to the apple, carried it to my mouth, and took a bite. The guard smiled: that was the point of the exhibit.

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There is a camp called “Dance, Dance, Immolation.” You put on a flame-retardant suit and play the faddish arcade game, with people watching your progress on a giant projection screen. If you misstep, a blast of actual fire engulfs you. The fire is harmless, because of the suit, but it’s very real. I know this isn’t art, and probably shouldn’t be in this section of the post, but I’m mentioning it because I think “Discourse, Discourse, Immolation” would be a really worthwhile variant.

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When I saw Paul Oakenfold DJ at the Coachella Music Festival, I didn’t really get to see Paul Oakenfold. In order to see him, I had to jump in the air, all for a glimpse of a Jumbotron. I was hemmed in by thousands of other fans, who were also looking at the back of someone’s neck. He played an absolutely fantastic set, and I remember dancing furiously for about forty-five minutes. I remember looking down at the little patch of ground I’d eked out; here I was at a music festival, and what I remember now is the sight of my own feet.

When I went with two friends to a “dance camp” at the edge of the Burning Man “city,” a succession of six DJs were hosting a party that started at 11pm and would go until nine in the morning. One of them would be in the booth, playing a set, while the others were mixed in with the crowd, talking about their music and accepting gifts. When I ran out of water, I just went around to the back of the booth, where the tents and kitchen were stashed, and they gave me some from the camp supply. We’d fall to talking, of course.

” It’s so nice not to just be looking at my feet,” I’d tell them. They’d sort of look away, and laugh nervously. Sometimes it’s hard to make yourself understood.

The Burning Man Religion

In one sense, there isn’t a Burning Man religion, which is surprising considering the origins of the festival in one man’s idiosyncratic ritual. Without wishing to sound like Wikipedia, a while back a man named Larry Harvey burned an effigy of a human being (nobody in particular) as a way of cleansing himself of some lingering misery. That act became an annual event, with friends and acquaintances taking part, and snowballed into everything that Burning Man is now.

However, the entire time that I was at the festival I didn’t hear the word “spirituality” uttered even once. Undoubtedly, I would have heard it had I been awake for the various morning yoga programs. But I cut a pretty wide swath in eight days, and only heard people talking concretely about what they’d experienced. “There’s a huge skeletal rattlesnake, on fire, you should go see,” they’d say.

New Age versions of spirituality, which have snuck their way into practically every section of the modern bookstore, are a means of shrinking from life. The spiritual has become simply a droning, earnest counter-rhythm that disrupts the other rhythm, that of productivity — like hedonism, the spiritual is a momentary rebellion against productivity. Even persons of real merit, such as the Dalai Lama, are reduced by Western society to purveying a soundless, crystalline, impossible fulfillment, in which one continues to believe even as the books that preach it shrink to pocket editions the size of postcards.

Instead of this, Burning Man overflows with life, and the meanings of it come later. It didn’t occur to me until today that the Pacific Hell piece might have been satirizing the satellite dream of continual, total accessibility of all persons, to all persons.

Still, the conditions of the religious exist there. In addition to the burning of the Man, which is a darkly exultant celebration, there is the burning of the Temple, an enormous open building where over the course of the week some people leave tributes to the dead. Like the Man, it is constructed by volunteers in the weeks preceding the festival. Of the 40,000 attendees, probably around half were still around to witness the Temple burning. It takes a long time for all that wood to be consumed: the Temple was made of tall pillars of wood. The pillars vaguely resembled the piles of stones that mark trails. So 20,000 people stood for almost an hour, without moving, without even making a sound. There was no ideology at stake, besides a willingness to let the moment take on meaning amidst that stillness. And that’s how, right then, the silence of the desert emerged in its glory, just as the sun had minted itself on the sides of those empty bottles, that were suspended with such care.