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		The Outsider Art of Burning Man 
by LadyBee, aka Christine Kristen

    I always had faith that art-making was important, but I wasn't sure why it was important. I went to graduate school for painting. I used to spend plenty of time trying to get shows in galleries, trying to get jobs teaching in universities, and trying to get grants. I had success in all three areas, but succeed or fail, I somehow felt unsatisfied, like something was missing. I began to find out what was missing when I became part of Burning Man.

    To be in the right place, to see and to make the art that belongs there, to work for my favorite audience, to be among people that understand, people that don't have to ask "why?" artists themselves, every one, at least for these few days---these are the things that have become more important to me than an NEA grant or a gallery opening.

    There is a yet unnamed art movement that may prove to be of some significance, and Burning Man is close to its center. It often manifests itself as circus, ritual, and spectacle. It is a movement away from a dialogue between an individual artist and a sophisticated audience, and towards collaboration amongst a big, wild, free and diverse community. It is a movement away from galleries, schools and other institutions and towards an art produced in and for casual groups of participants, more akin to clans and tribes, based on aesthetic affinities and bonds of friendship. It is a movement away from static gallery art and formal theater and towards site-specific, time-specific installation and performance. It is a rejection of spoon-fed corporate culture and an affirmation of the homemade, the idiosyncratic, the personal. It is profoundly democratic. It is radically inclusive, it is a difficult challenge, and it is beckoning.

- Larnie Fox,

Aerial view of Black Rock City, 2001
Designed by Rod Garrett and built by the DPW
13,000' x 10,000'
© Burning Man, photo by Thom van Os

Survival and Sharing in the Desert

In late August of each year, on Labor Day weekend, the Black Rock Desert of Nevada becomes the setting for Burning Man---a week long temporary community based on radical self-expression, creativity, survival, and sharing. Up to 28,000 people from 49 states and 26 countries converge on the playa and create a fantastic playland populated by interactive theme camps, wildly costumed creatures, art cars, performances, and art. There is no vending, and gift-giving is popular and encouraged. Community principles are: "Leave No Trace"---everything brought in must be removed, so that the desert is left in pristine condition; "No Spectators"---everyone is encouraged to participate in some way; and radical self-reliance---one must bring everything necessary to survive including shelter, food, and water. The festival generates a startling array of art installations, some of which would seem familiar to anyone versed in the contemporary art world, and many of which would seem to cross the boundaries of conventional taste and aesthetics. This is art that differs significantly from most work in galleries and museums. It is site-specific, temporary, community-based, interactive, and must also withstand extremes in weather. While one person may conceive and design a piece, most installations are realized by a group of artists, helpers and volunteers. Artists draw on the extensive resources of our community to make their visions come to life, and in every case this art-making is an intense hands-on experience, undertaken against great odds. This process brings people together and is completed by the interactive quality of the work, which comes to life during the week of the Burning Man festival through participant interaction. At the end of the week, some artists choose to burn their installations, although the recent trend has been to take down the art and reinstall it later at other venues. Each artwork represents the hard work and communal efforts of many people and is given to our community as a gift for all to enjoy.

I use the term "outsider art" rather loosely as some of our artists do have degrees from art schools, exhibition histories, and art careers. The work they do in the desert, however, is not done to impress a critic, to get a dealer, to get a show, or to make a sale. Often the work is done simply to realize a vision, and to give that vision to an appreciative audience who may develop an intimate relationship with the piece. One does not need an art degree or even any art-making experience at all to build an installation at Burning Man; here people who have never made an art object can do so. In any case, this is art outside of the conventional art world. It is democratic, inclusive, experiential, and profoundly affected by its immediate environment.

The Setting

Ringed by mountains, this desert is actually a prehistoric lake bed known as a playa, site of the former Lake Lahontan. During much of the year it is underwater, but for a few months becomes a huge expanse of perfectly flat land with a very distinctive surface of cracked alkali. Putting a piece of art here has a profound effect on the work and imbues it with a very different quality than if viewed in the neutral, protected space of a gallery or museum. As there is virtually nothing in this environment, not a blade of grass and barely a small stone, anything placed here becomes surreal and bigger than life.

The Burning Man,
sculpture of Douglas fir with steel nails, brackets, fasteners, and neon, 40 x 4 x 9 ft
Designed by Larry Harvey and built by volunteers
© Larry Harvey, photo © Keith Phillips

The Man itself, a forty-foot high wooden figure, looms large and powerful on the flat, featureless playa. Seen from a distance it is entirely unexpected, a genderless giant striding across the desert, and at night its neon skeleton gives it an eerie, alien appearance. In 1998, when installed at City Hall in San Francisco, the man was dwarfed by the surrounding buildings and lost much of its impact. On the playa, when severed from any reference points, an object can become as big (or small) as the viewer's imagination allows.

It Came From Within, 1993
Neon tubing. 115' x 80'
© Vince Koloski, photo by Gerry Gropp

The Installations

In 1995 Vince Koloski installed on the playa a large neon ground sculpture called "It Came from Within," which, in a more conventional setting would have read as a technology-based line drawing. In the Black Rock Desert it appeared to be an alien petroglyph or some kind of site marker, and also played beautifully with the desert light at dusk. Antenna Theater of San Francisco installed their interactive walk through the fifteen-billion year history of the universe, called "Sands of Time"

Sands of Time, 1999
A 2700' path strewn with 800 objects made of steel, plywood, and playa mud, with a 30-minute audio tape
© Antenna Theater, photo by Holly Kreuter

in 1999, as part of our annual theme, The Wheel of Time. It consisted of 800 objects sculpted from playa mud and arranged in a linear pattern. The viewers were given headphones in which they heard music, voices and sound effects as they walked through this performance/sculpture. It was previously installed on a beach in the Marin Headlands, but on the playa it resonated with a sense of prehistory, enriched by the timeless quality and unchanging nature of the landscape.

The Sta-Puft Lady, 1997
Inflatable sculpture, recycled billboard, vinyl (cigarette ads). 25' x 12' x 20'
© Tim Kaulen, photo by Steven Raspa

Tim Kaulen's "StaPuft Lady," 1997, presented a frightening spectacle to participants dwarfed by her immense bulk. She was a 25 foot tall inflatable woman made from cigarette billboard vinyl, with a grotesque fashion model head frozen in a blank smile. She seemed to have wandered from an urban area to the playa, where she was tethered down, bobbing menacingly in the winds. One could imagine this monster of advertising breaking free of our commerce- free community and striding defiantly across the open desert, heading for the nearest city.

Architectural work is altered by the playa in a grand manner, isolating and romanticizing its nature. Finley Fryer's "Plastic Chapel" a two-story building made of modular panels covered in recycled plastic and lit from within, has been installed in several locations. At Burning Man 1998, it became a grand mosque, anchored in the desert and set off by distant blue mountains. It took on a majestic and quasi-religious quality, and served participants as an illuminated landmark to guide them at night. It appeared again in 2001 as the "Wedding Chapel," part of our Seven Ages theme, based on Shakespeare's poem from As You Like It: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." The art was arranged in thematic areas from birth to death and participants were able to journey from the cradle to the mausoleum, interacting with related art installations along the way. The Chapel was the setting for numerous weddings and commitment ceremonies, and seemed to attract a constant crowd.

Another temple appeared in 2000, David Best and Jack Haye's "Temple of the Mind," a brilliant example of recycling. Built of the negative cut-out pieces from dinosaur model kits, it was an elaborately filigreed fantasy structure, fragile and beautiful, which seemed to appear and disappear in the many dust storms that characterized Burning Man 2000. It was dedicated to the artist's father who had died that year, and was burned in tribute to him. David and Jack undertook an even more ambitious project in 2001, the "Temple of Tears," which functioned as the Mausoleum in our Seven Ages theme art area. Made of the same recycled materials, it rose six stories in height and referred to Balinese and Thai religious architecture. Constantly thronged with visitors, the interior contained an altar upon which participants left mementoes and tributes to lost loved ones. One immediately fell silent upon entering the airy, filigreed chamber, and a somber mood prevailed. Nearby an enclosure made of the same materials contained a coffin made of flattened guns, by John Ricker, an artist who runs the Guns Into Art foundation.

The Temple of Tears (burning), 2001
Recycled plywood, 60' x 50' x 50'
© David Best and Jack Haye, photo by Zoe Keough

On the last night of the festival, participants gathered and waited in a nearly impenetrable dust storm; when the dust lifted briefly, the temple was burned in a moving ritual of collective grief and mourning.

Site-Specific Sculpture

The distinctively cracked and patterned playa invites site-specific work which plays with its surface and its history as a lake. Each year we see imbedded figures which appear to be swimming in or emerging from the playa, fantastic plants and trees which seem to grow out of the parched surface, and aquatic objects which refer to the former lake environment.

HMS Love, 1999
Plywood, 15' x 8' x 160'
© Andy Hill, photo by Niccolai Maurizio

In 1999, a 30-foot wooden submarine, the H.M.S. LOVE, appeared to break out of the playa surface in a clever illusion of emergence from water. Another ghostly ship, Steve Heck's "Haunted Junk," built of burnt pianos and other debris, appeared to sail along the playa surface in 1998. It employed a clever visual trick involving the view of a passing train through its windows, which gave the viewer the sensation of movement.

Mirrorage, 1997
Gelatin silver prints, 4' x 56'
© Shelly Hodes-Vaca, photo by Shelly Hodes-Vaca

In 1997, Shelly Hodes-Vaca installed "Mirrorage," a 56-foot long panoramic seascape composed of 4-foot high gelatin silver prints on an empty expanse of the playa, beautifully contrasting with the dry surface and referring to its origins as Lake Lahontan.

Trojan Duck Lounge, 1997
Wood, 15' x 24' x 12'
© Robert Burke, photo by George Post

A 15-foot wooden duck, propelled by humans carrying it on their shoulders, seemed to float along the playa in 1997. Created by Robert Burke, it was intended to float in nearby hot springs, but instead swam the playa in a communal leap of faith. References to water have been taken to extremes, notably in the case of Jim Mason's "Temporal Decomposition," 1997, a 12-foot high ball of ice which embodied ideas about loss and memory, and marked, by slowly melting, the passage of time. Embedded in its surface were numerous clocks, which fell out of the ice as the sculpture melted. A diagonal rod pierced the ball and served as the gnomon for a sundial, casting its shadow on twelve hour markers arranged around the ice ball. In addition, four spires of ice, piped with propane and flaming at the top, marked the cardinal points around the ball. Every element in the piece represented some aspect of time, and its inability to survive in the heat of the desert suggested the impermanence of the physical and the fragility of our attempts to mark the passage of time.

Some of our artists work directly with the playa itself, using mud from the hot springs, cattle bones found in the ranching areas, and in one case a large granite boulder found near the playa.

The Temple of Rudra, 1998
Playa mud, wood, and metal, 35' X 35' X 35'
© Pepe Ozan, photo by Holly Kreuter

Pepe Ozan, sculptor and creator of a spectacular annual opera, works with mesh structures covered in playa mud, usually in the form of lingams and yonis which appear to push up out of the playa surface. They become chimneys when they are burned at the end of each opera. Sculptors Dana Albany and Michael Christian used local cattle bones to create a 30-foot archway (1997) and a mobile tree (1999).

The Rock, 2000
Granite boulder, 10' high, 22,000 lb.
© Zachary Coffin, photo by Quito Banogon

Zachary Coffin, a sculptor from Atlanta, works with boulders, and in 2000 he moved a 21,000-pound granite rock from nearby land to the playa, where it seemed to have mysteriously dropped from the sky. Rumor had it that it was a meteor that somehow survived a fall from a meteor shower observed during Burning Man 1999. In 2001, he created the "Rock Spinner" from the same boulder, drilling a vertical hole through the stone and mounting it on a pivoting base, so that one could, with some effort, rotate the boulder. We placed it in the fourth station of the Seven Ages, the Coliseum, as a metaphor for human struggle.


Perhaps the most distinctive quality of the art at Burning Man is its interactivity. In many cases participant interaction is required to complete a piece, and on the playa people are free to touch, climb, and play with the art. German artist Hendrik Hackl's "Das Ammoniten," a gigantic spiral sea shell, 21-yards in diameter, made of metal arches covered in a white fabric skin, invited participants to enter it at full height and make their way to its diminishing center, forcing them to assume a crawling position and to return to their primitive stance. Spiralling down to a tiny opening at its center, the "Ammonite" depended entirely on interaction to achieve its goal.

Elucid Dreams, 2000
White acrylic spheres, steel piping, motion sensors, lighting system, microphones and speakers, in a 38' diameter circle
© Sophie Neudorfer and Mac Downs, photo by Niccolai Maurizio

"Elucid Dreams," by Sophie Neudorfer and Mac Downs, depended on one's willingness to insert one's head into a bulbous white form where audio-visual effects completed its dream-like appearance.

Dan Das Mann's work is highly interactive. In 1998 he built a tree of copper tubing which dripped ice water during the day, providing a cool place to socialize, and flamed at night. His "Faces of Man," in 2000, featured three 20-foot high faces which depended on the viewer's presence to trigger a sensor which activated a soundtrack. The copper head cried fire as a rock song played; the grass head cried water as the blues played, and the driftwood head cried sand to an opera aria. Kal Spelletich, a Bay Area machine artist, always depends on the viewer to activate his sculptures. His mechanical devices challenge the participant to overcome fear and often involve fire.

Hall of Possible Selves, 1999
Six plexiglas columns lined with mylar and photographs in a 35' diameter circle
© Stephanie Andrews, photo by Holly Kreuter

Stephanie Andrew's "Hall of Possible Selves," 1999, consisted of a ring of transparent columns lined in mylar and photographs. She invited viewers to stand before the columns and to let their reflections blend with the photographs, imagining that they were other people. Jenne Giles' "Ribcage," 2000, was an 18-foot high metal ribcage which featured a swing located where the human heart would be. Participants could climb the ribs and swing on it as if they were the heart beating in its cage.

Mandala, 2001
Formed steel and found objects with spot and rope lights,
9' x 7' x 30'
© Jenne Giles, photo by Phillipe Glade

In 2001, she created the "Mandala," an unabashedly whimsical installation of graduated vertical spinning metal rings, decorated with bells, flowers and other festive materials. One could sit in an extravagant throne at the end of the rings, and look through them to see the Man. Three female figures with spotlight heads provided illumination at night, as well as a sequenced red rope light which connected the figures and the rings.

Michael Christian's "Bronchial Tree," from the same year, played ghostly organ pipe music if the viewers activated its attached pumps.

Perhaps the most interactive of all is Spencer Tunick's work---large nude group photographs in which the participants themselves become the art, as they arrange themselves in patterns on the playa.

The unique combination of site, weather, and community creates new possibilities for art-making which are only beginning to be seen in the Black Rock Desert. This is art which flies in the face of the traditional art world, and it has yet to be seriously considered as a millennial cultural phenomenon. I believe it will have a lasting effect on our notions of art, community, and expression.


LadyBee is the art curator for Burning Man. She is a former sculptor with an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After ten years on the art world treadmill in Chicago and New York, she moved to San Francisco, found Burning Man and never looked back.

LadyBee aka Christine Kristen
P.O. Box 884688
San Francisco, CA 94188
E-mail: ladybee@burningman.com

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