Burning Man 2006

George W. Hart

I ended my summer of 2006 with a trip to Burning Man.  The event was an indescribable arts festival in which forty thousand people came together to celebrate the creativity of the human spirit. For one week, a city was created in the desert by the participants who freely share their gifts. There are many aspects to Burning Man, but as a sculptor I was especially appreciative of the hundreds of stunning artworks. The centerpiece of the city is the 40-foot man, shown above, which is burned at the end of the celebrations. I can't begin to explain the whole thing, but below are a few morsels from the feast:

Above is Serpent Mother, by The Flaming Lotus Girls, a fiery steel dragon, some 150 feet long, roaring with computer-controlled flames as the animatronic head and mouth gyrate. As you might guess, fire is one of the many themes of Burning Man. In my travels, I have made a point to visit many great sculpture parks and museums, but nothing can compare to the exuberance and intensity of Burning Man.

Uchronia was an amazing cavernous construction some 50 feet tall, created by Jan Kriekels and Arne Quinze.  Nicknamed The Belgian Waffle, it was nailed together by a crew of Belgians working for several weeks. In the image above they are adding a few finishing pallets of 10-foot long 2-by-3's. At night, it was lit up to become a freeform dance environment. Sadly, I had to leave the afternoon before it burned, but I found a beautiful video of the burn on their web site.

The Big Round Cubatron, by Mark Lottor, was a large 3D array of computer-controlled ping-pong ball size lights.  It was programmed with a long sequence of evolving patterns which created an immersive hypnotic effect as you stared into its space.

Lovers of kinetic fire art were entranced by the flash, roar, and dancing movement of Joe Bard's Pendul-up. Five jets on the top of a gimbaled boom are individually controlled via a push-button handset (a good distance away).  The force of the thrust sends the pendulum swinging and circling while the mace-like counterweight at the bottom moves oppositely. For extra interactivity, a volleyball thrown in by the crowd was repeatedly blown out by well-aimed blasts of flame.

The art didn't have to be large, loud, and fiery to be creative and affecting. I came across this beautiful piece while riding my bike way out in the quiet darkness of the playa night. Its soft luminescence and organic textures made me feel I was drifting along under water. Some three feet tall, it was apparently made from cut up milk containers, stapled together.

On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with large, loud, and fiery!  Costumes and events at Burning Man are a whole 'nuther subject. I'll just say this band was hot...

The art vehicles which participants bring are simply stunning.  Consider Daisy, the solar powered tricycle.  Driving her silently around and seeing the beauties of the playa from up above the dust was a joyful experience.

If you prefer to pedal your bike, then Ma'am, the mammoth mammoth is the the thing for you. It is powered by four people who sit inside pedaling it. I did a couple of miles in it, enjoying the experience immensely. You haven't lived until you have steered a mammoth through a three-point turn.

The highest technical achievement in an art vehicle can be seen in the Mondo Spider, which walks on eight articulated legs. Watching it pound its way along the playa was like science fiction. A crack team of "arachno-engineering" students from UBC trucked it down from Vancouver.  They spent many hours in the hot sun making last-minute welds and adjustments so we all could enjoy its thumping gait.

I wanted to contribute a sculpture of my own to this rich environment, but anything less than six feet might be lost in the scale of the desert.  Arriving by plane limited the size of what I could bring. So I ended up designing the above sphere, made from sixty plywood parts, each 32 inches long.  It fits in carry-on luggage! The components are all cut from one 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of quarter-inch plywood. The total weight is less than ten pounds and the total cost is ten dollars. Notches in each part allowed it to be quickly assembled on site. I dyed the wood dark blue, so the sculpture would contrast with the light dust of the playa.

The template above shows the pattern of each piece. I zipped them out in a couple of hours on a band saw. The A slots mate with B slots to make twelve pentagons.  The C slots mate with D slots to make twenty triangles.  Each component is part of one triangle, one pentagon and two large spherical rhombi.

Perhaps the above computer-generated rendering gives a clearer sense of the structure. Notice the rings of of five co-planar parts, which are parallel to another set of five parts. They outline equatorial bands. Each part touches four other parts --- at its middle two notches it is lifted and at its end notches it lifts two other parts. This engineering principle of mutual support derives from drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and has been used to great effect recently by the Dutch sculptor Rinus Roelofs. I have simply applied it in a slightly different geometric pattern here.

On saturday night at the end of the festival, the man is burned in a giant ritual conflagration. (Love those lamps!) Many of the artist participants also burn their artwork. Wanting to be part of this, on saturday afternoon I rolled my sculpture across a mile or so of desert to bring it to the man. Taking your ball out for a walk? they asked. Yes, but more than that, my sculpture sits inside the spectacle you see above, adding its small contribution to the flames.

What a week Burning Man was! And the above is just an infinitesimal fraction of all the wonderful people, wonderful art, and wonderful experiences...

P.S. Thank you to my fellow camp members at Camp I Am.