For over a century, a central basis of art has been what critic Robert Hughes termed “the shock of the new.” Modern art has taught its followers to yearn for subversion and disruption, the undermining of anything they believe an artwork to be: Marcel Duchamp’s upside-down urinal, Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of the Empire State Building, Jackson Pollock’s dismissal of any figure-ground relationship by splattering paint directly on the canvas. The dismay they caused quickly turned to admiration and accolades.
I have only felt that delectable, euphoric “shock of the new” twice in my life: when I saw the first exhibit of Jeff Koons’s porcelain and wood sculptures at the Sonnabend Gallery in SoHo in 1988, and when I went to Burning Man for the first time in 2000. Koons’s “Banality” sculptures horrified and fascinated me with their vacant pop culture glamor. It had never occurred to me that such deplorable kitsch could become objects of aesthetic contemplation. Burning Man impacted me in a different way. The festival expanded my sense of what art was and could be. It rewired my sense of what human beings are capable of. The shock has been permanent—my desire for more of it remains addictive.
Despite some concerns about the future direction of the gathering, I still consider Burning Man the greatest cultural movement of our time. This may seem like a strange thing to say about an event that routinely gets dismissed as a hedonistic, drug-saturated, glorified rave. Wagner talked about the “great United Art-work” as “the instinctive and associate product of the Manhood of the Future.” There was—and still is—something peculiarly futuristic, as well as operatic, about Burning Man. It reveals how permeable human nature is and how quickly people will transform when given the opportunity to be part of something new and better. The total context of an environment where people are liberated from commercial transactions, and given license to share their gifts, express their full individuality, and be inclusive toward others has a transformative impact. It also creates a unique context for artwork that celebrates our highest potential—at the cost, perhaps, of some critical distance and discernment.
Many of the mainstream art world’s conventions get turned on their heads at Burning Man. In a museum or gallery we generally expect to encounter art as groupings of discrete objects that we view, and judge, within a pristine white cube. One of Burning Man’s cardinal tenets, on the other hand, is that there are no observers, only participants. In such a context, art is inherently interactive. At Burning Man, art is sublimely relational, meant to be touched, climbed over, played on—and ultimately fed to the flames and destroyed.
Also crucial to the aesthetic of Burning Man is the event’s enormous scale. It conveys a sense of limitless expansion, where imagination is the final frontier. Some of the most extraordinary art experiences one can have at the festival involve getting lost in its seven square miles of vast and largely empty desert. Bicycle through “deep playa” to the event’s orange mesh perimeter fence in a white-out dust storm, and you may well encounter, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, an installation of a Bedouin tent surrounded by pulsing LED flowers, where a cowled, silent man serves you piping hot Moroccan mint tea.
Sculptural installations at Burning Man often play with our sense of scale. In 2003, for Zachary Coffin’s Temple of Gravity, enormous stones were suspended on tensile cables in mid-air for those brave enough to crawl over them or lie beneath them. Unbelievably enormous structures that rival wonders of the world get built each year and detonated in the event’s final days. In 2007, Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito created Crude Awakening, a 99-foot-tall oil derrick in front of which massive humanoid sculptures bowed in adulation. In 2012, Otto Van Danger’s Burn Wall Street saw an entire scale model of Wall Street built and blown up in a sly homage to the Occupy movement. This summer, a team led by Dan Sullivan built a pair of 60-foot-tall pyramids called the Catacomb of Veils. At around 6 a.m. on Friday morning, with the Playa engulfed in a brilliant, pink sunrise, the pair burned to the ground, sending off massive cyclones of smoke and leaving only the smaller pyramid’s metal crown to testify to their former existence.
As a Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, Burning Man heightens and stimulates the various senses to a great degree—it also often confounds or denies our yearning for completion or satiation. Just as often as you may stumble upon that would-be Bedouin and his mint tea you may also be wandering and hear some faint throbbing beat or see some quavering lights far in the distance and race toward them, convinced that some extraordinary art piece or dance party is taking place, that some revelation is at hand. Upon reaching the source, you might just find a speaker throwing out skittering beats next to a few gauze-covered poles, and nobody else around, nothing but dust, as far as the eye can see. As a vast social sculpture, Burning Man conveys elements of Buddhist teachings—on the incessant nature of craving, on impermanence and emptiness—without being pedantic about it.
Burning Man also represents a cultural edge-space where art, entertainment, and spectacle cross back over toward their original roots in ritual, ceremony, and religion. This is something that is difficult to talk about without inviting ridicule. As a unified artwork or social sculpture defined by a set of 10 principles (“Leave no trace,” “radical inclusion,” “gifting,” “decommodification,” and so on), Burning Man functions in the lives of its regular visitors as a ritual, an annual pilgrimage—a ceremony that celebrates the turning of the year, the recreation and transformation of the self, and the mystery of existence itself. Such events were known throughout the ancient world. Most famously, the Eleusinian Mysteries in Ancient Greece was an annual gathering for all of the luminaries of the Classical World that lasted for 1,500 or more years, only coming to an end in the 4th century A.D. at the behest of Christian Roman emperor Theodosius. Burning Man seems an organic return to these archaic mystery traditions, but in an American grain.
After 16 years at Burning Man, acclaimed author Daniel Pinchbeck assesses the countercultural event’s place in the global art world—and its transformative effect on culture at large.
Photographs by Alexander Forbes, with image design by Philip Warner Patton. © Artsy