Art has become the defining feature of Burning Man, as the festival continues to be a testing ground for a growing circle of artists seeking engaged audiences. Burning Man art installations are guided by the themes chosen by the festival organizers each year. The most compelling works are large-scale constructions that are burned at the end of this extraordinary event.
Whether you’ve missed the boat on a ticket or don’t have the funds for this year’s event, hopefully this gallery will offer you a window into what goes down each year at Black Rock City. However, if you are one of the lucky people reading this in your disco sunnies about to head out to the desert — get inspired, get pumped, and enjoy.
* Note: This post is an expansion of the original, by Matador contributor Robyn Johnson, which was published on August 25, 2008.
This unique modern steel sculpture reaches 40 feet into the heavens and challenges all past engineering feats and techniques seen in previous years. The dancing lady has been crafted to celebrate humanity, feminine beauty, and the power that can be harnessed when there is balance on our earth.
Uchronian by Jan Kriekels, Arne Quinze, Maurice Engelen, and Uchronia Crew, 2006
The Belgian artists who created the massive Uchronia (quickly dubbed “The Belgian Waffle”) installation produced daily videos of their project, which they uploaded to their website as their development unfolded in Black Rock City. Creators remarked Uchronian represents their take on a Utopian life. This depiction of utopia cost around $800,000. I am not sure about you, but I reckon my life would be pretty euphoric if someone blessed me with a ridiculous ton of cash like that.
Crude Awakening by Dan Das Mann, Karen Cusolito, Black Rock FX, Pyrokinetics, Nate Smith, Mark Perez, and MonkeyBoy, 2007
Like the majority of American political projects, this creation is laced in controversy. The main theme of this installation was to envisage the downfall of the US Empire and fossil-fueled civilization. What better way to do that than with 900 gallons of jet fuel and 2,000 gallons of liquid propane? The installation was split into three parts: construction, destruction, and rebirth. In the beginning the constructors erected a 90ft oil derrick with stairs to the clouds, dominating the Playa’s southern skyline. Nine figurative steel sculptures, weighing 7 tons each and standing 30' tall surrounded, the derrick.
A small word with big connotations, it's the simpler structures that really speak to me. Perhaps this is because, like me, Laura is dyslexic. This just goes to show the beautiful things people with this frustrating life hiccup can achieve -- I may, however, have written "OGE." The EGO Project introduces Laura Kimpton's collaboration with Michael Garlington in the newest addition to Kimpton's Burning Man Word Series. Each letter stands 20ft tall, 10ft wide, and 4ft deep, guilded with 10,000 gold trophies. Simple, clear, poignant.
The Temple of Stars by David Best and the Temple Crew, 2004
Temple of Stars arcs a quarter mile across the Playa, inspired by Japanese sculptural landscapes. The 100ft structure hold a system of paths that connect to smaller temples along the cardinal points, not to mention bridges, fabricated gardens, and benches placed throughout for participants to reflect.
This display of motherhood and the right of passage of a child was constructed by Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito. The sculpture represents a figure of a mother (30’ tall) and a child (20’ tall) walking side by side. Their journey and energy is symbolized by a trail of burning footprints which fade as they get further from the figures.
This may be my favorite installation over the years. No, it's not breathing fire or reaching tangled metalwork towards the sun, but it has an essence of simplicity about it that I find enduringly calming. The helium-filled balloons wander through the sky, day and night.
The all-female collaboration of the Flaming Lotus Girls have a long history at the festival. Their construction, Mutopia, entangles copper and steel to represent 13 seedpods that sit within a 97-by-60ft area. The structure is ignited by a series of LED lights and a thrilling fire system, and participants can pull leavers and press buttons to produce movement and flames.
This interactive art/music project is constructed of a simple hall that has a wind harp at one end, two massive fire organs which make sound with torch flames, and an interactive whispering wall. Taking inspiration from the windy desert, the creator talks of the experience within the hall; “When you come into this space, when you encounter this portal and these still beings, it is like you are immediately transported into a childhood fantasy story, but it's got a weird strange alien twist to it.”
The Temple of Transition by Chris Hankins, Diarmaid Horkan, and the International Art Megacrew, Reno, NV, Dublin, Ireland, and Aukland, NZ, 2011
It took a crew of over 150 people from around the world -- most based in Reno; New Zealand; Vancouver, BC; and Ireland -- converging in the Black Rock Desert to build this outstanding structure. Standing as the 5th-tallest wooden construction in the world at 126ft, the tiered, hexagonal central tower is surrounded by five 58ft tiered, hexagonal towers. Like the other temple installations featured here, The Temple of Transition offers a peaceful, contemplative, and deeply emotional space.
Black Rock City may not technically fit within the festival's criteria for what is classified as a Burning Man art installation, but that said, since when did this party play by the rules? For me the city itself is a display of artistic wonder.
The theme for the 2006 event was "Hope and Fear: The Future." Raudenbush responded to the theme with this sculpture. Always one to pose questions with her art, Raudenbush remarked, "My response to both hope and fear was the same thing -- the human race. How do you create a sculpture about the dichotomy of human nature? What’s the one thing that bonds us all together?" She answers her own question through this installation -- can you guess what it is?
Celtic Forest by Laura Kimpton, Bob Hofmann, and Jeff Schomberg, 2007
Laura Kimpton takes center stage one more time. This collaboration recognized the talent of fellow artists Bob Hofmann and Jeff Schomberg. The structure contains four flaming steel candelabra trees, from 12 to 17 feet tall, placed 25 feet apart at the four points of the compass, surrounding a steel figure within a flaming moat. The figure is Belisama, the Celtic goddess of fire, light, and the muse of music and poetry. The figure is chained to several steel sculptures, each aflame, expressing the creators driving rhetoric: "Humans are not number one, we are all equal".
Charon is a life sized three-dimensional fabrication focusing on the last rite of human passage to the afterlife. At first glance this installation may project a morbid tone, but the artist asks rather than dwelling on our ultimate demise that we think about the positive changes you can make to your life to live a fuller, more peaceful existence.
It’s all in the name and there doesn’t seem to be a title more fitting for this 168ft snake fire installation. It took a team of over 100 to pull off this project and create the flame effects. The collaboration of skill-set is unmistakable, between metal art, propane design, use of LEDs, and integrative software. Enjoy the video the team produced during the design phase and construction; note the weird looks they get when they go to purchase 50 stun guns.
There is nothing better than a casual climb up a 40ft laser-cut steel sculpture. That’s exactly how I spent one windy and dusty afternoon during Burning Man 2012. When night drew closer the central pyramid glowed like an amber yellow fire; I spent hours with friends gathering here, rediscovering our freedom and creativity.
Michael Christian makes the kind of art that resonates with everyone. Key Note is my favorite large structure of the decade. It's made entirely from locks -- all kinds of locks, from bike locks to padlocks. I can only image seeing this eerie man come into sight through the dust storms, dragging the large key behind him. Michael states that the man is in search of another key, the right key, a paradox of life as we know it.
Harkan's welded metal art of an ancient tired man embodies an essence of desperation and fear. The Burning Man team whispered, "Deep in the open playa, we find an ancient man standing alone, gnarled body bent by age, knotted hand upon a walking stick lest he collapse...Metaluselah: Our Oldest Friend."
The Flaming Lotus troupe make another appearance in our list with their large, complex, twisted piece of work, "Tympani Lambada." Starting with the ‘simple’ concept of reproducing the inner ear in gargantuan proportions, a form "dictated by nature," the group went through dozens of ideas of how to go about it before settling on that most efficient of structures, the truss. Michael Prados, who captured this photo and served as an engineer on the project, commented, "I was surprised that anyone could do a project of this scale on a volunteer basis. I was very pleasantly surprised at how effective it can be. I hope there are lessons here for the larger world."
Steampunk Treehouse by Sean Orlando and Steampunk Crew, 2007
Steampunk invite you to imagine a future without trees – wiped out almost entirely by the Western sense of superiority, modernity, and greed. The treehouse stands as a message that humans must conceive life’s meaning in very different, plant-respectful ways. The lofty structure consists of a fabricated steel tree with a house perched atop its branches. The house, 20 feet off the ground, accommodates 40 people and is accessible via a ladder system on the interior of the trunk.
What does I.T. stand for? Interstellar traveler? Interesting tripod? Intergalactic terrorist? Impressive toilet? The artist Michael Christian's creativity has been an integral part of the festival since 1997. Inspiration for this intimidating installation comes from 1950 science-fiction creatures, notably the War of the Worlds' creature with its large red beacon ray vaporizing those in its path. Recently, when questioned on his artistic vision, Christian remarked: "If you ever are in doubt about an idea, just run it by a 14-year-old. They may not have mastered the sophisticated language around ‘art’ and such, but they will break it down for ya pretty quickly."
This immense structure comprises four grand entrance halls that converge onto a central altar. The amphitheater above the altar is open, allowing light to be filtered throughout the day and night, casting interesting shadows and establishing a constant flow of energy, turning this wooden structure into a breathing creature. Known for his large-scale temples constructed from scrap plywood and cast off materials, David has been building massive Burning Man art installations since 2000. The temples have become a powerful main attraction, allowing a space for people to hold remembrances, sit and write, mourn, and contemplate.
Big Rig Jig gathered a massive throng of eager Burners not only because of its poetic name, but because it is constructed from two giant tanker trucks, curving around each other while balancing on the Playa.
The Dreamer was commissioned by Burning Man in 2005 as part of the Psyche' theme. It's a bold and enchanting sculpture of a head half submerged in the vast dry lake of the Playa. Inspired by the images of Magritte and other surrealists, this Burning Man art installation was in part created to explore the issues and challenges facing artistic interpretation of the mind. The sculpture was positioned in a prominent place along a lantern-lit promenade that extended from center camp to the Man and beyond...
Temples become a space of solitude and spiritual refuge at this festival. The theme of the 2012 Burning Man event was 'Fertility 2.0.' The name for the temple was inspired by the Roman goddess Juno, who has many epithets: the deity of fertility, a warrior protectress of women, and a guardian of marriages. Although this temple, like the many before it, opened a space for mourning, it also offered a vicinity for people to celebrate love and trust. On its final night, before burning, the temple held an exhibition of memorials, secret messages, and mementos, gifts from festival participants.
BELIEVE by Laura Kimpton and Jeff Schomberg, 2013
Photo by: Ross Borden
Famous for their Big Words series at the festival, the duo's installation yet again drew the crowds this year, becoming one of the most photographed of the installations. 'Believe' enticed onlookers to contemplate what they believe and how their beliefs effect the lives of others on the planet.
The Bay area artist Charlie Gaedeken is renowned for his metal-and-fire installations. This 20-foot-tall metal tree rises from the barren Black Rock Desert floor. Its branches twist, intertwining in spinning orbs of flames, twinkling like clusters of stars in the night sky. The installation gave the illusion the tree was bathing in a pool of light. More than a work for art, this experience had Burners commenting that the encounter was out of this world, as if they had been transported to another galaxy.
Marco Cochrane gives us another installment in his monumental sculptures inspired by singer and dancer Deja Solis. Since Bliss Dance in 2010, Burners have been treated to Cochrane's expression of womanhood, and the promotion of female rights and humanity.
Xylophage is a monumental structure, constructed of metal, wood, fire, light, and sound. Never a team to disappoint, the Flaming Lotus Girls again offer Burners an opportunity to engage and interact with their experiential art. The artists state: "The sculpture revels in the beauty of fungi and the critical role they play on this planet by capturing the eternal cycle of decomposition, renewal, and rebirth."
The Monkeys are back by popular demand this year, and instead of bikes to make the carousel spin, Burners (with no instructions) had to figure out that they would need to beat the drums beneath the monkeys in unison to make them go. These guys (pictured) are going to need more people!
The Death Guild Thunder Dome by The Death Guild Crew, 2013
One of the most popular attractions at Burning Man every year, the Dome offers a space where warriors, suspended by giant rubber bands, attempt to knock the crap out of each other with nerf toys. Boys and their toys!
The Ichthyosaur Puppet Project or Dr. Camp's Holy Bones by Jerry Snyder 2013
Part fictional, part scientific, this 50-foot-long puppet replica depicts Nevada's state fossil, the Ichthyosaur. The project was set to explore the phenomenon of faith and the stories we make and learn about the world and its origins.
The performance artist Otto Von Danger spent over two months, recruited 50 volunteers, and spent an estimated $100,000 assembling the replica of Wall Street. The tongue-in-cheek project consisted of a fake New York Stock Exchange building, the Bank of Un-America, Goldman Sucks, Merrily Lynched, and Chaos Manhattan (Chase). Von Danger said he picked Burning Man as the stage for this political protest because it “is a natural space for dialogue-driven art... Status quo doesn’t sit well with most Burners. Change is inherent in the world, so we question stagnancy.”
El Pulpo Mecanico by Duane Flatmo and crew, 2011-2013
The Pier group braves the Playa for a second year constructing a shipwreck 60 feet long, 20 feet tall at the tip of its keel, and 12 feet wide. Lucky participants had the opportunity to explore the three levels of the ship's interior (Hull, Crew Deck, Main Deck). A Pier team member said:
"The Pier resonated with people because it was a launchpad for imagination, it was a destination that was easily accessible, simple, a place where anyone could go and share in an imagined sense of nostalgia. How can we capture this sense of wonder and play and build on it? Like a ship out of the fog it came to us. Let’s ram a massive full scale Spanish galleon into the end of The Pier.”
Fire of Fires Temple by David Umlas, Marrilee Ratcliffe, Community Art Makers, 2009
Drawing inspiration from India, the Middle East, Asia, the Americas, and Africa, the Temple centers on the element of fire. Encased in 32 vertical feet of clear Polycarbonate sheeting, 12 gas lamps come alive as a tornado of flame ignites during interaction with the wooden Temple.
Dave Gertler, an engineer and artist based in San Francisco, is a devoted Burner, having participated in the creation of installations for the last 8 years. 2013 saw his team create a 12 foot high pair of wooden hands, a symbol of creativity and construction.
Like 4 Real by Dadara Amsterdam, 2013
Photo by Ross Borden
The Golden Like symbol stands on a massive black altar-like structure, a centre of worship for the "Like Tribe," who built this structure as their central totem. The installation poses questions such as: Does social media strengthen our real physical and emotional bonds as human beings, or does it disrupt our social structures, turning us into Like-clicking autistic zombies?
The Heart Communi-Tree is a wooden assemblage sculpture of a tree made with materials salvaged from the trash. The tree has a heart at the base of its branches. Standing nearly 15ft tall and 12ft wide, it's a natural metaphor for community.
Rubber Horses by Dorothy Trojanowski,Eleanor Smudge Lovinsky & Eddie Cunha
Katie has been traveling Asian/Pacific region for 10 years working as an anthropologist and regional analyst. Katie has worked for the United Nations as a translator, negotiator and media liaison in Cambodia, Australia and New York. When she not surfing, chasing summers and eating coconuts, she's writing stories in Brooklyn, New York.