No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man

By Wasserman, Andrew | Art Inquiries, Annual 2018 | Go to article overview

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man


Wasserman, Andrew, Art Inquiries


No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man

March 30, 2018-January 21, 2019

No Spectators: Beyond the Renwick

March 30, 2018-December 2018

City of Dust: The Evolution of Burning Man

March 30, 2018-September 16, 2018

Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum Washington, District of Columbia

Burning Man's Ten Principles echoed across the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's recent exhibitions. (1) These principles--Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy--serve as mission statement and code of conduct for those attending the annual public event. Scott Froschauer's Ten Principles (2017), which was on view in a first-floor gallery, presented these principles most literally: each principle appeared on a different sign plaque, each set in a different direction while anchored to the same central pole. The effect was a subversion of Department of Transportation wayfinding markers, simultaneously chaotic and tightly structured around an organizing core. The Renwick Gallery, as exhibition site and sponsor, modeled this form. It provided an institutional framework through which to understand the diverse maker practices on view.

What started in 1986 as a public conflagration on San Francisco's Baker Beach to mark the summer solstice has become a year-round program of regional events guided by a staff of over 100. Black Rock City, the week-long gathering of tens of thousands of people in the Nevada desert since its 1990 relocation, is the most well-known and well-attended of these events. The festival concludes with the burning of the effigy of "The Man," both object and icon with no specific referent. (2) A call against the passive consumption of commodity culture, at its best Burning Man offers a critical lens through which one can re-envision the contemporary world: geographically isolated in extreme conditions, attendees question otherwise normative social and economic systems. At its worst, however, Burning Man is a high-cost salve, an elective and expensive retreat that facilitates the kind of pseudo-reality the event otherwise warns against.

Small- and large-scale static and kinetic sculpture, architectural enclosures, and mobile "mutant vehicles" serve as sites of gathering and staging grounds for performance, while costumes, patches, wearable ornaments, and graphic ephemera structure acts of collective identification. Although functionality is occasionally observed (e.g., the need to provide protection against daytime desert heat, nocturnal cold blasts, and occasional dust storms), the fantastic dominates the works on view both on the playa and in the Renwick Gallery's exhibitions. Technology-enveloping environments were the main attractions of No Spectator: The Art of Burning Man. These included FoldHaus Art Collective's Shrumen Lumen (2016) (fig. 1), clusters of viewer-activated expanding and contracting glowing corrugated plastic mushrooms, Aaran Taylor Kuffner's Gamelatron Bidadari (2018), 32 vertically stacked and computer-activated bronze gongs, and Christopher Schardt's Nova (2016), an overhead star-shaped LED-screen displaying visualizations accompanying a classical music soundtrack. However, more intimate works were also presented. Documentary photographs and videos ringed the building's corridors, while Android Jones' virtual reality pods brought forth an encounter with a world simultaneously inside and beyond the walls of the Renwick Gallery.

Marco Cochrane's Truth is Beauty (2018), a scaled-down version of his 2013 stainless steel sculpture of the same title, held court in one of the first-floor galleries. This twisting nude female figure was dramatically lit in colored lights. Lining the walls of the same gallery were displays of elaborate costumes and wearable pieces, their already otherworldly forms enhanced by the scenographically heightened lighting. …

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