The Black Rock Desert in Nevada is desolate for the majority of the year. Yet for one week each year, it is transformed into Black Rock City, where around 75,000 people travel to experience the wonders of Burning Man, a massive experiment in community living. The gathering is short, but the cultural movement has spread far outside the playa, or dry lake. Burning Man has taken the world by storm; now, its message of unabashed creativity has made its way to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in the exhibit “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man.”
Since its reopening in 2015, the Renwick has made a name for itself with impressive and accessible exhibits: Visitors are encouraged to take pictures, lie down to relax and sometimes even touch the artwork. The laid-back, creative atmosphere of the Renwick makes it the perfect venue to channel the untamed spirit of Burning Man.
For many, Burning Man is a way of life. The 10 principles that are upheld by “burners,” or the people who attend the festival, are radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leave no trace, participation and immediacy.
An important component of Burning Man not listed in the principles is creativity, as Burning Man is a venue for artists to construct monumental art pieces with the Nevada desert as their gallery. Fire is sometimes incorporated into the works, and visitors are encouraged to climb on and fully explore the often monumentally huge art.
Though the traditional museum venue does not allow flames or provide the vastness of a desert, the Renwick curator of craft, Nora Atkinson, did a magnificent job capturing the Burning Man spirit and translating it into a gallery.
Atkinson’s focus has been on contemporary crafts and the philosophy behind creation; as such, Burning Man was a clear match.
“[The artists’] work asks questions such as ‘what does art look like when it is separated from commercial value?’ and ‘why do we continue to make in the 21st century?’” Atkinson told the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Atkinson provided no clear answer, leaving it up to viewers to find importance and relevance in the art.
“Temple,” an intricate wooden structure, is a particular standout in the exhibit. Housed in the grand salon of the Renwick and constructed by David Best and the temple crew, the temple has been a tradition in Black Rock City since Best created it in 2000. It serves as a spiritual center for burners — a place where they can leave shrines or memories of loved ones before the temple is burned to ashes in a magnificent fire. The temple that stands in the Renwick, constructed solely of blond wood, carries the grandiose architecture of a religious structure, but also the light and soft comfort of a home.
Another artwork that seamlessly jumped from desert to gallery is titled “Truth is Beauty,” a sculpture of a stainless steel mesh woman reaching 18 feet into the air. Marco Cochrane debuted the original sculpture, which was 55 feet tall, at Burning Man in 2013. Still, the smaller scale version for the Renwick is impressively powerful. Cochrane successfully captured the awe-inspiring strength in femininity by physically making the woman larger than those around her.
Outside the gallery in the Golden Triangle, a neighborhood between the White House and Dupont, are six sculptures placed there through a cooperative effort between the Renwick and the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District. This extension is titled “No Spectators: Beyond the Renwick,” and adheres to the same themes as the indoor.
A giant bear, “Ursa Major,” stands on his hind legs outside a cafe, covered with thousands of pennies to give the texture of fur. In front of a bank, Maya Angelou’s head rests atop a stack of books, with birds flying out from where her brain should be. This exciting art mingles with suited businessmen and Washington, D.C. traffic, providing a relief from what Burning Man attendees call the “default world.”
Each large-scale sculpture is accompanied by a plaque to explain the artwork and the exhibition. The hope is to encourage more public interaction with art and with each other, especially for people who would not typically find themselves inside a gallery.
The District, as the seat of political power in the United States, represents many of the things Burning Man seeks to get away from: commodification, competition and elitism. By bringing the art and spirit of Burning Man to D.C., the exhibition shows that creativity is everywhere — for those who are willing to see it.
At the end of the week of Burning Man, most of the art is lit aflame and burnt into ash, along with the Burning Man, a wooden man over 50 feet tall. As quickly as it came, Black Rock City dissipates without a trace.
The Burning Man festival is transient; the only permanence is its effect on its participants. “No Spectators” allows this revolution to reach everyone who visits the Renwick or walks through the Golden Triangle. We could all use a little more Burning Man in our lives.