A Taste of Burning Man in the Nation’s Capital

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A Thousand Paper Cuts

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man at The Renwick By Brendan L. Smith

A last-minute decision kickstarted my 1,100-mile road trip from Santa Fe, N.M., to Burning Man, the massive counterculture festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert that revels in giant art installations, techno-fueled dance parties, nude bike rides, mutant art cars, and other forms of “radical self-expression” that culminate with the torching of the 10-story Burning Man sculpture.

I didn’t know what to expect but I arrived in the middle of an epic whipping sandstorm that exhaled clouds of chalky dust through everything in its path, including my tent, sleeping bag, clothes, and food within minutes of setting up camp. It was a harsh welcome but an amazing trip into a surreal world where the harsh elements battle with free spirits.

Burning Man, photo by Neil Girling

That was 13 years ago. Now I’m 2,600 miles west of Black Rock Desert in the more buttoned-down environs of Washington, D.C., where the Renwick Gallery has staged an unconventional exhibition titled No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man. The size and complexity of the room-size installations required closing the entire museum for almost a month, but it is still just a small taste of Burning Man, which sprawls across five square miles weaving through theme camps, makeshift bars, lamplit processions, and the most compelling art installations I have ever seen.

As the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s branch dedicated to contemporary craft, the Renwick Gallery has staged several recent exhibitions that extend the boundaries of craft beyond dusty collections of quilts and pottery to embrace contemporary artistic trends and maker subcultures such as Burning Man. Renwick Gallery curator Nora Atkinson spent two years organizing this exhibition, working with the Burning Man Project and Burning Man artists from across the country.

Marco Cochrane, “Truth Is Beauty,” Photo by Ron Blunt

Among the room-size installations, Marco Cochrane’s 18-foot-tall sculpture of a nude female dancer titled “Truth Is Beauty” is somehow both intimate and commanding, a feminine spirit writ large on a grand scale. She is balanced on tip toes with an arched back and arms twirling skyward, almost brushing the ceiling. Crafted from stainless steel rod, mesh, and waterjet-cut metal, the body’s metallic sheen casts an otherworldly glow. But this sculpture commissioned by the Renwick Gallery is only one-third of the size of the 55-foot-tall original sculpture that was displayed at Burning Man in 2013. An inscription at the base read in several languages, “What Would The World Be Like If Women Were Safe?”

Temple by David Best

While Burning Man’s namesake sculpture may get most of the attention, artist David Best and his Temple Crew create intricate multi-story wooden temples that are contemplative spaces and a welcome respite from the baking desert sun and wind-blasted sand. People often leave memorials inside the temple to loved ones they have lost, including handwritten messages, photos, and mementos.

Best has transformed the largest room at the Renwick into another temple with woodcut columns, ornately decorated walls, hanging lanterns, a 30-foot-wide chandelier, and a pagoda altar featuring one large spike descending downward and another ascending upward, representing the “golden spike” used to mark the site of the Burning Man sculpture each year. Visitors can write messages on small wooden blocks and stick them into the temple walls or leave them on ledges where the blocks overflowed onto the floor, expressing an anonymous mass of hopes and fears. “Stay human.” “Keep going.” “We miss you, Dad.”

Aaron Taylor Kuffner “Gameltron,” photo by Libby Weiler

Burning Man began in 1986 when San Francisco artists Larry Harvey and Jerry James built a rough 8-foot-tall wooden figure from scrap lumber and dragged it to Baker Beach where they set it alight in a modern summer solstice ritual. Burning Man became an annual tradition with a few hundred participants before it was banned by police in 1990 because of potential fire hazards, leading to its relocation to Black Rock Desert where it has grown to more than 70,000 participants each year.

“Shrumen Lumen” by FoldHaus Art Collective, photo by Ron Blunt

The Renwick Gallery exhibition also features a collection of Burning Man patches, elaborate costumes, archival photos, and a humorous collection of jars of ashes from former Burning Men, each labeled with their year of conflagration. Three large glowing mushrooms titled Shrumen Lumen by the FoldHaus Art Collective fill another room. When you stand on a glowing circle, a hydraulic arm lifts the mushroom cap above you, causing it to crackle and pop like a campfire. If feels like a brief stop in Wonderland while Alice wasn’t around.

“Nova” by Christopher Schardt

Christopher Schardt’s video installation titled “Nova” features a star-shaped aluminum LED screen suspended from the ceiling with cushions on the floor where visitors can lie down and gaze above them as if they were lying in a field staring at the sky. The video features swirling images of the cosmos, shooting stars, and expanding galaxies in a mesmerizing and meditative display.

For the first time, art also is spilling outside the doors of the Renwick Gallery with six sculptures placed on downtown sidewalks and medians in a partnership with the downtown-area Golden Triangle Business Improvement District. Since Burning Man artwork was designed to be shown outside, these installations are a welcome addition and a fun surprise for tourists and office dwellers who will turn a corner and see two giant crows, a 14-foot-tall bear with copper fur crafted from 170,000 pennies, or a bust of Maya Angelou that plays one of her poems.

Burning Man was founded on 10 principles, including radical self-expression, gifting, and decommodification. Nothing is sold at Burning Man except for ice and coffee, and there aren’t any corporate sponsorships, big-name bands, or food trucks. Participants must bring everything they need to survive (including drinking water), and many people share food, drink, and gifts with each other in a communal spirit.

The Renwick Gallery blatantly violates the decommodification principle in its gift shop where a bunch of Burning Man-ish goods are for sale, including books, jewelry, glass baubles, $60 T-shirts, and $900 faux-fur jackets. But a government-funded art museum with free admission has to make some bucks somehow, especially with Philistine-in-Chief Donald Trump trying to slash any arts funding that doesn’t involve portraits of himself.

Leo Villareal, above, with sculpture by Aaron Taylor Kuffner at center


No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man
March 30, 2018 – January 21, 2019
Renwick Gallery (Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW)

Brendan L. Smith is a freelance journalist and mixed-media artist based in Washington, D.C.

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