Rule One – Don’t Die.
I’ve been aware of the Burning Man festival for quite a long time. It’s the American desert version of Glastonbury. As in, it’s a festival to celebrate the solstice in which all those arty outdoor types get excited about lights and building stuff for a city sized event. They put months and months of planning into a long build before a week of festival. They talk about their art projects in loose terms “We looked at cargo cult”, “This year I thought about I, Robot“, “I seem to have a fish theme”. They talk about sharing the gift of fire and they burst into tears when someone starts to play a lone bagpipe. In the ‘to camera intros’ for each artist they imbue their passion, their bohemian vision and their dedication to the build.
The challenge becomes apparent when you consider the environment they come to work in. When the desert kicks up a dust-storm after you’ve seen shot after shot of volunteers, lashing together timber frames or inserting glass bowls into a wire structure, you realise this arts and crafts movement is as much Mad Max as it is parade floats on a cinematic scale.
The language of building temples, altars and effigies for what is essentially a knees up in the desert may seem frivolous on screen. I can’t be too cynical though. Personally I remember the feeling Glastonbury’s fire breathing spiders gave me in the Avalon field when I stumbled across them in my youth. I remember the rush of Festival Number 6’s torch lit procession to the arena (RIP to that particular shindig). I am yearning for some adventure after spending this festival season behind closed doors, only venturing out for essentials sanitised out of the experience with a mask bolted.
At the centre of Gerald Fox’s documentary narrative is the presence in absence of Larry Harvey: The festival’s founder who died the year before this film, and who was a huge inspiration for the artists and friends he left behind. The words used to describe him are respectful, fond, loving and secular yet spiritual. Pulling it all into focus is a sparse electronic score that allows the wide open space to breathe its dust into your front room.
The structures take on a beauty in their complexity as the film winds on. You can see the efforts take shape around each other as the flat earth fills up with shirtless dudes in dusty work-boots and caravans. There’s lots of hoisting things into position, and enthusing about the concept of each piece, while someone toots on a flute or diddles a bongo in a faux Sioux head-dress.
It appears to me the difference between Burning Man and other festivals is that the sideshows are the main event. The effectiveness of each piece is as subjective as in any other art gallery. When you see them combined, the cumulative effect is pretty unique. That communal element becomes clear towards the end of the film, when shared endeavour builds love between people. The incredible night-time images that remove the desert and spot light the artists visions is a delightful pay off. The sparse ambient beats and strings of the score by techy-dubster HÄANA serve the visuals well. Giving them the space they need, understanding that the scale of the thing is the charm.
Once it’s time to keep our appointment with the titular man it’s impossible not to be swayed but the spiritual babble of these goggle-eyed loons without portfolio. To me, 2018 looks like it was pretty special, especially when I’m sat here in the less than splendid isolation of 2020.
Build it. Dance round it. Burn it down. See you next year?
Burning Man: Art on Fire is available On Demand in the UK from 22 August
Arthur Georges Joel Mamou-Mani, is a French architect who currently resides in London. Mamou-Mani is director of the architecture and design practice Mamou-Mani Ltd which specializes in a new kind of pop-up, digital fabrication led architecture and is a lecturer at the University of Westminster. https://www.instagram.com/mamoumani/
British designer Andrew Johnstone is one of the artists in charge of designing the Burning Man Man Base, and ensuring that the Man burns safely, so that flaming tons of debris do not cascade down onto the thousands of revelers below. Since 2005 he apprenticed under Rod Garrett, the architect of Burning Man. When Rod passed away in 2011, Andrew was honored with the title “Design Steward of the Man” and has served to carry on with the design of the Burning Man Man Base
Dana Albany is a prolific Bay Area artist who produces and fabricates large-scale sculptures, museum exhibits and interactive installations of extraordinary vision. Originating from a collage of recycled materials, Albany’s work reclaims our scraps and discarded objects to re-imagine meaning. She has created and exhibited for Burning Man, the de Young Museum of Art, the Exploratorium, The California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco Arts Commission, Esalen, SOMAR Gallery and the San Francisco Airport. https://www.instagram.com/taramechani_digitaljourney/
Since 2005, second generation artist Peter Hazel has been creating stunning permanent mosaic sculptures in ceramic, tile and glass. Primarily depicting the natural world, Peter is a master of form and scale and imbues his pieces with energy and vibrant color palettes that reflect his love of nature. He works in both 2 and 3 dimensional sculptures, reliefs and mosaic panels. https://www.instagram.com/peterhazelart/
Hailing from Denver, Colo., Shane specializes in metal sculptures. After attending Burning Man he was inspired to build something similar to the large art installations on display at the event. It took eight months of dedicated work but Shane was successful in his mission with Robot Resurrection. https://www.facebook.com/RobotResurrection/
Kate Raudenbush is a New York-based, Burning Man-bred artist, who resonates deeply with environmental issues, and the perils and potential of our evolving humanity. She is a creator of monolithic, immersive & allegorical sculpture works that aim to catalyze social engagement, and shift consciousness, while exploring themes that range from technological sustainability to creation myth, and from self-empowerment to environmental awareness.