Since its beginning over three decades ago, countercultural rave camping party Burning Man has stormed through the lives of the people who go to it — and through news and social media articles. These articles light up every August with pictures of unbelievable art: flaming octopuses; enormous zoetrope sculptures of Hell’s boatman Charon; and a life-sized, dilapidated country chapel called the Church Trap.
This stretch of Nevada desert is known as Black Rock City to its temporary residents, the 80,000 attendees who hail from all over the world. The event is built from the ground up every year, and no permanent structures remain on the land once the event is over. Even debris pieces as small as a sparkle of glitter are picked up and removed since the Black Rock Desert is preserved federal land and must be left as environmentally pristine as possible.
Burning Man may seem like just another dance party popular with wealthy tech workers like Elon Musk, who plans to attend again this year. But for many, it has become a focal point in their personal, spiritual, and social engagements. People make connections at Black Rock City that affect the rest of their lives. (I, for one, met my husband there.)
As profound as Burning Man can be for many people, this year’s Burn promises to be more intense than ever. Here’s why.
Larry Harvey (1948-2018)
In April of 2018, one of Burning Man’s founders, Larry Harvey, died. In 1986, Larry and some friends in the San Francisco Cacophony Society burned the very first Man (a small effigy) on San Francisco’s Baker Beach. Since then, Larry — who was known for his iconic Stetson and a wide, easy grin — became the voice and face of the growing “Burning Man Movement,” as he eventually called it.
In 2004, Larry developed the Ten Principles of Burning Man, which includes ideas like radical self-expression, community involvement, decommodification, and leaving no trace. Larry has been quoted in the press, spoken at TED conferences, and attended the gala opening of the Smithsonian’s Burning Man exhibit at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, on view through January 2019. A Larry stand-in even shows up in the iconic Malcolm In The Middle episode in which Malcolm runs away to Burning Man.
After his death, Larry inspired a “Global Day of Gratitude” last June. People around the world whose lives had been touched by Burning Man were encouraged to personally memorialize the man who made the magic happen. At Burning Man itself, Larry’s death will be memorialized in a few ways.
The Temple Burn will be insane.
The highlight of Burning Man usually takes place on the second Saturday of the 10-day event, when a massive statue of a man is set aflame. This year, the festival’s most important moment may well be the next day when the Temple burns.
Every Sunday, after the majority of Burners have left, a beautifully crafted wooden temple is set aflame. The first Temple was designed and built by sculptor David Best in 2000. It was an immense and graceful structure constructed entirely of wood scraps from children’s toys. David Best dedicated that Temple to a friend who had recently died in a motorcycle accident and to anyone impacted by suicide.
Since then, the Temple has become a mainstay of Black Rock City. People come to the Temple to remember those who left us in the previous year. It’s hard not to be moved by the homemade memorials sketched and nailed on the bones of its structure and the quiet contemplation of those who visit it.
This year, more people than ever will stay for the Temple Burn. The Temple itself — designed this year by 35-year-old French architect Arthur Mamou-Mani — was ironically chosen by Larry Harvey himself. Many more people will wind their way home one day later this year, having even less time to recover from the lack of sleep and harsh conditions of the desert.
Artwork and events will be dedicated to Larry Harvey.
Whether they have personally met Larry Harvey or not, many Burners owe a debt of gratitude to his hard work over the years. Multiple unofficial memorials will be scattered all over the playa, as the dusty center of Black Rock City is called. Two officially “placed” artworks — meaning they’re listed in the art map for Black Rock City — memorializing Larry Harvey are planned, as well.
“Passage Home” by Kate Raudenbush is a series of pentagonal doorways receding into the eastern-facing horizon, ending with a silhouette of Larry Harvey walking into the sunrise. Renowned bronze sculptor Mischell Phoenix Riley will be bringing a large bust of Larry with a space at the bottom for participants to sit and contemplate the event. Previous sculptures Riley brought to Burning Man included a model of Leonardo da Vinci’s head that you could walk inside and a stunning bust of poet Maya Angelou.
Seattle camp System Reboot is organizing a moment of silence. This will be hard for a population of 80,000, but the effect of sudden silence in the unending bustle that is Black Rock City will be intense. Other planned events range from a parade of Larry enthusiasts across the main drag at sunset to a Larry Harvey Happy Hour, where you can wear your own Stetson hat and cowboy boots.
While you can never quite expect what other antics will come from this year’s Burning Man, what is certain is that the passion that people bring to the playa, in combination with the heightened emotions due to the passing of the famous founder, will lead to a Burning Man unlike any other — and one you won’t want to miss.