Burning Man festival evolves
by Meredith May
August 31, 2008
Once upon a time you could turn your bike into a carrot, go to Burning Man and consider yourself a style maven.
Since 1990, the annual, weeklong desert art festival has grown – and with it, the spectacle.
This year the sculptures reached 10 stories into the sky. Art cars are now double-decker, fur-covered buses, complete with round-the-clock blasts from actual foghorns. The old-school, pirated radio shows now stream live on the Internet. Even the dust storm of 2008 – a white-out lasting seven hours on the first day and temporarily shutting down the entrance gate – has become legendary.
“It’s getting harder to stumble across that quirky, ‘made-in-your-garage’ stuff, but it’s still really an amazing place,” said Will Scott of Lagunitas, as he sat under an enormous replica of a Hummer SUV – one of nearly 200 installations throughout the Playa.
By Thursday, nearly 45,000 people were camped within the 9-mile perimeter of Black Rock City, the temporary city created for the event. They were living in motor homes, tents and communal “theme camps” that provide free services such as yoga sessions, martinis or dance clubs. Buying and selling is forbidden at Burning Man (except for espresso and ice) and revelers must bring all their own food, water and shelter to last a week in the harsh desert climate. The end of the festival on Saturday night is marked by the burning of a 40-foot wooden man in the center of the city.
The show-stopper art installation this year was Babylon, a 10-story steel-frame tower rising 100 feet into the sky, with a stairwell to the top. Built by union workers out of recycled materials, the structure was financed by an anonymous company and rumored to cost $700,000 to build and transport to the dry desert lakebed known as the Playa. A family financed the structure to honor its Greek immigrant father, who was one of the early builders of Las Vegas and, according to his heirs, embodied the spirit of this year’s theme at Burning Man – the American Dream. Babylon came with a photo booth that projected images of people on the tower’s sides. The projection combined heads, torsos and legs of different people as one person, providing endless entertainment.
“Burning Man definitely feels more mass-produced now,” said Scott Finsthwait of Oakland, who last attended the gathering in 2001. When Finsthwait first arrived this year, greeters handed him a Burning Man guidebook of events that was 77 pages long, with 20 activities per page. Choices included a discussion on Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth,” a toddler-sized bicycle race and a rock opera. He remembers when the guide was just a couple pages.
“It feels more like a festival and less like an experiment in community to me,” he said. “It’s not a let-down, just something you have to adjust to.”
The explosions had more wow, too. At Mutopia, a sculpture of flaming vines and pods built by the Bay Area’s Flaming Lotus Girls, hundreds gathered to watch the sculpture emit roaring purple, orange and green flames as fireworks shot out of the desert floor. A half-dozen iron balls, about the size of pumpkins, rolled out of the inferno shooting sparks and orange flames, propelling themselves toward the crowd.
“I’ve never seen anything like that!” exclaimed Brent Smith of England.
This year the temple at Burning Man provided quiet, contemplative space for revelers. The two-story wooden structure, built with telephone poles and sporting spiral staircases, was covered with scribbled mementos to loved ones who have passed away. Every year, the builders burn it to release the prayers. Visitors wrote odes to their babies, brothers and lovers:
“Dear Brother, so very sorry you are gone and about the squirrel monster thing. Miss you and your daughter. Still haven’t found the cards, Love Rob.”
Or this on a matchbook tucked into a black Berkeley Concrete Pumping ball cap: “Mean people go to hell. Kiss my grits – Buckshot.”
On one wall, Dave White, 31, was painting the face of his dog, Homer, who died a year ago. The animator from New York’s work had a Pixar quality to it, with gleaming cartoon eyes and intricate gray shadowing in the black fur. Homer was a German Shepherd-black Labrador mix, who looked a lot like a bear.
“I had him since I was 19. I went through a lot and he was the one who kept me sane,” White said. “When he died I promised I would keep his spirit alive somehow.”
It was cathartic to step out of the hedonism for a day and work on his painting, White said.
“Burning Man is about having fun and meeting people, but it has its spiritual moments, too,” he said.
Check out this video from CBC TV from Burning Man 2007: