Viewing the great and many art projects is, purportedly, the core of the Burning Man experience. These are displayed throughout the streets of the temporary city created for the event in Nevada’s Black Rock desert and in the open “playa,” which faces the city where the burning man itself—a kind of minimal, more politicized Zozobra—rests until he is burned at the week’s end.
In explanation of its art ethos, the Burning Man organization uses this text, written by Bay Area-based artist Larnie Fox:
There is a yet unnamed art movement that may prove to be of some significance, and Burning Man is close to its center. It often manifests itself as circus, ritual, and spectacle. It is a movement away from a dialogue between an individual artist and a sophisticated audience, and towards collaboration amongst a big, wild, free and diverse community. It is a movement away from galleries, schools and other institutions and towards an art produced in and for casual groups of participants, more akin to clans and tribes, based on aesthetic affinities and bonds of friendship. It is a movement away from static gallery art and formal theater and towards site-specific, time-specific installation and performance. It is a rejection of spoon-fed corporate culture and an affirmation of the homemade, the idiosyncratic, the personal. It is profoundly democratic. It is radically inclusive, it is a difficult challenge, and it is beckoning.
Unfortunately, Fox makes it sound much better than it is. Radical inclusivity is a laudable attribute and certainly an important part of the Burning Man environment, but in terms of a movement it is somewhat self-defeating.
The first problem—and this is wholly evident in the kind of work that appears on the playa—is that clan affinities and tribal rituals that are imagined and created are “big, wild, free and diverse” only so long as diversity is confined to a fundamentally white, middle-class population. Burning Man is sub-culturally diverse, but it is by no means culturally or ethnically diverse.
Secondly, quality is important to the lasting influence of art and its ability to affect introspection and transformation. For all of the blindness created by the so-called “art world’s” ties with corporate culture and its inflexibility, unmitigated inclusivity is equally guilty of blocking the percolation of important work toward the top of the pot.
Finally, in its earnest juxtaposition away from the art world, much of the work winds up being exclusive by virtue of its internalized focus.
This is manifest even in the content of the art at Burning Man; if the work is not more spectacle- than content-oriented to begin with, it tends to be an apparatus designed for observation, such as a tower, a tall chair or a climbable spire of some kind. Both kinds of structures, spectacle and observation, can be magical, transformative and even profound, but one almost questions the need to consider them “art,” a practice that seems to enforce an idea that art is the category of things with no ready and practical purpose.
New Mexico artists, Santa Fe-based Joel Hobbie and Taos-based Christian Ristow both presented works at Burning Man this year. Ristow’s project, Hand of Man, was even funded in part by a grant from Burning Man (the organization gives out approximately $400,000 for artist projects annually). Both projects were among a handful that were admirably interactive and formally more resonant than most, if still falling into the category of spectacle in their own right.
Hobbie’s piece, a biomorphic machine-creature, tethered to solar panels, stood in a lonesome spot of alkali plain, looking like a petrified, alien brood pod. A series of lenses revealed small, colored lights that were linked to a theremin device encased in Plexiglas. Rather than create sound, as a theremin usually does, the device responded to the proximity of people and their hands with shifts in the hue and intensity of the lights. It was essentially a visual instrument, a kind of wondrous toy for people to stumble upon.
Ristow enlisted his entire band of Taoseños—as ritualistic and feral a tribe as exists at Burning Man—to assist with his project, a giant, hydraulic hand, capable of crushing whole cars. Operated through an elegant, stainless steel “glove,” reminiscent of a prop from a Jeunet and Caro film, Ristow’s monstrous hand gleefully arced through a fenced-off playground full of 55-gallon drums and crushed cars. With individually articulating fingers and joints—and flashy red-painted fingernails—the hand was as striking as an object as it was satisfying as spectacle.
As artists who are clearly a cut above average at Burning Man, it’s up to Ristow, Hobbie and their peers to ensure that their work continues to surpass spectacle or mere trippiness if Burning Man’s relevance to movements within art is to continue. Indeed, such high standards are necessary for the whole event to have more relevance to the larger culture than just a big party in the desert.