The sort of art that one makes at Burning Man is not like the sort of art that one makes elsewhere. The gallery space is a desert. The viewers of the art are crowds of brightly colored denizens of a temporary city. And the temporary city is in a desert, because it is one of the few places in the world that such a massive, temporary project of infrastructure, ingenuity, and imagination could be easily built and disassembled.
Temporary is the factor overshadowing every piece of art in the Black Rock Desert. Time controls the build schedule, and the construction materials. The Burning Man festival is only one week long, so the art must appear and disappear again on that time frame. And it must disappear very literally, as the land is public land, conserved environmentally as well as architecturally. Nothing permanent can be built, and no trace of what occurs there can remain. This is one of the reasons that burning the art has become so popular, in mimicry of the climactic burn of the gigantic wooden man that gives the festival its name.
Time was the reason that Embrace, built by the Pier Group, burned on Friday morning of Burning Man 2014. A collective of artists, engineers, and builders who had collaborated on previous Burning Man art projects came together to build a 72-foot sculpture of two figures embracing. But by the time the work was completed, they realized that they could never disassemble it and clean up the area on schedule. So they decided to let fire do their work for them. A dense cloud of smoke went up into the blue desert sky of the morning as flames ate away the delaminated plywood making the skin of the structure. A crowd of onlookers danced and cheered as the core structure burned. The structure had previously supported internal staircases allowing visitors to climb inside the sculpture and up to the heads. Each figure held massive chandeliers in their chests, in the shape of human hearts. As the last vestiges of the structure collapsed into charcoal and ash, a dust storm swept over the desert, leaving the revelers blind in a white cloud, with nothing but the beat of music to guide them.
It might seem wasteful to spend all that money, effort, and material on a piece of art that will last for less than a week. But any construction, whether made of wood, steel, or stone is transitory, and requires upkeep to maintain. Burning Man is a festival of repetition and cycles. Every annual festival is not just a week, but the culmination of an entire year of fund raising, planning, and work behind the scenes. Like an annual flower which blooms once and then whithers away until next year, the plant is not dead beneath the ground during the winter, but simply in the less abundant stage of its life cycle. Some art strives for permanence, attempting to make a mark that will last through the accelerating years. But every work of art is more than what is seen at its point of completion. From sketches, to models, to failed experiments, to lessons learned, to grant applications, to sales—all of these non-art elements come together to make the art what it is.
The process of art is what Burning Man celebrates, in addition to the monumental size of some of the works. The community is a huge factor. Crowd-developed, crowd-built, and crowd-funded projects like Embrace are the only reason that such scale is possible. The crowd is every bit as important as any individual artist, and while certain names may take the spotlight, everyone knows the assistants as well. The artwork expands outward, not constrained to any particular creativity or site, but spread throughout all who come in contact with it. Those who interact with the work, climbing its staircases, hiding in its shade from the heat of the sun, and who gather to watch and cheer its burning are part of the process, and part of the art. From initial spark, to the final pile of embers, this is what is considered when attendees refer to “The Burn”. From the most engineered plans, to the random synchronicity of a fire in a dust storm, the elements of the creative process embrace each other, holding tightly, until they suddenly let go.