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Fire Art of Burning Man: Essay

Playing with Fire

by Christine Kristen aka LadyBee

ABSTRACT: Fire as an art form is evolving in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, where many Burning Man artists explore the creation and manipulation of fire in their installations. Sculptors, engineers, geeks and pyromaniacs experiment with open fires, pressurized gases and pyrotechnics to produce mesmerizing and beautiful works of art.

Mysterious, powerful and threatening; why does fire so compel us? We cannot contain it, we cannot hold it directly in our hands, nor can we withstand its touch. It warms and serves us but can also destroy us. It never stands still; its myriad shapes are fluid, ever changing and hypnotic. It can only be fully experienced in the moment of its existence. To consider it as an art material is challenging; our need for permanence in art would seem to rule it out. Yet there is a growing interest in using fire in art, and Burning Man provides the perfect environment in which to experiment with this nascent art form. The flat, featureless Black Rock Desert floor and its surrounding darkness provide a safe and dramatic backdrop for dangerous art. Burning Man's Performance Safety Team makes sure that all fire art is created within parameters developed and refined over years of experience in working with flammable materials. The team is composed of artists who have safely and successfully displayed fire art in previous years of the event, trained firefighters, pyrotechnicians and other industry professionals. Burning Man's humble beginning, in which one wooden figure was burned, has evolved into an event featuring hundreds of art installations, including fire art made with pressurized gasses, digitally controlled explosions and pyrotechnics.

Photo 1. Small After All World by the LA Cacophony Society, 1999, wood, paper, and plastic, 12' X 65' x 9'. © Al Ridenour. Photo © Steve Carthy.

In the early years of the event, many artists chose to burn their art, in a gesture of freedom, non-attachment and letting go. Fire was the culmination and death of the art, destroying months of work and planning in a brief blaze of glory. In 1993, 1994 and 1995, Pepe Ozan built playa mud lingams which functioned as chimneys; they were filled with wood at the bases. As they burned, participants danced wildly around them, the mud glowing and the metal support structures finally weakening to the point of collapse. This work anticipated the ritual use of fire in his later operas, which took place on elaborate playa mud sculptures/stage sets. The LA Cacophony Society was one of the first groups to create installations which met their end in flames. They created Spontaneous Combustion Theater in 1994, Toyland in 1995, Tinseltown in 1996, and finally the ambitious Small After All World in 1999. These burn performances mocked and destroyed American cultural icons -- clowns, childhood toys, the Hollywood film industry, and Disneyland -- in fiery displays of exuberant anarchy. Most installations are no longer burned, and those that are must be placed on burn platforms, which protect the playa surface from burn scars. Although concern for the safety of the public has imposed certain limitations on the fire art, one can still use fire in extravagant and dangerous ways not seen in ordinary settings. While those with access to private property may experiment with small fire installations, large scale fire art is virtually impossible to create in any venue, public or private, without attracting the fire department or the police. Trying to get fire art permitted, even in a safe location with safety measures in place, is extremely difficult, particularly in our fearful post-9/11 climate. Burning Man enables participants to experience fire in ways forbidden to us in our home environments or in gallery or museum settings.


Photo 2. The Man Burns, 2005. Douglas fir with steel nails, brackets, fasteners, and neon, 40' x 4' x 9'. Designed by Larry Harvey and built by volunteers. © Larry Harvey. Photo © Don Jackson.

Perhaps the most direct and simple use of fire on the playa is the burning of large scale installations, usually connected to a ritual representing cleansing, purification, and release. The central ritual of the event is the burning of the Man, the 40-ft-tall wooden icon that occupies a sacred spot in the center of Black Rock City. The hours immediately preceding this event are fraught with expectation and excitement. The man and its platform are packed with pyrotechnics; by nightfall the community gathers in a circle around the Man. A festive, energetic crowd of art cars, robots, costumed participants, rickshaws, sound systems, bicyclists, stilt walkers and drummers surrounds the Great Circle, where the Fire Conclave, the world's largest gathering of fire performers, entertains the crowd in a breathtaking display of skill and invention. A grand display of fireworks erupts from the Man's base, setting the whole structure on fire as the crowd goes wild. When the man topples, they rush in to be near the sacred flames. The burn has many meanings to the community, probably as many as there are participants. It has its roots in pagan harvest festivals and could symbolize the destruction of the past, and the clearing of space for the future. It now marks the passing of the year for many participants, who begin their annual calendar on the day after the burn.

Photo 3. La Mystere de Papa Loko by Pepe Ozan, 1999. Welded steel, mesh, and playa mud, 40' X 20' X 15'. © Pepe Ozan. Photo © Tom Pendergast.

In 1996, the Burning Man opera made its first appearance on the playa as the City of Dis. Pepe Ozan transformed his playa mud lingams into a large scale architectural whimsy that functioned as a stage set. A mezzo-soprano sang the libretto, accompanied by a live orchestra, while dancers and performers enacted a story culminating in the burning of the set. The enthusiastic audience ringing the set chanted "Fire tonight, devil's delight!" and everyone felt part of a neo-pagan fire ritual whose meaning was never clear, but was intensely fun. The operas continued through 1999 with the Daughters of Ishtar (1997), the (1998), and La Mystere de Papa Loko (1999) (Photo 3). At the climax of the final opera, all props, including altars, stages, totems, and costumes were set ablaze, and the audience was invited to leap through a flaming portal into the "New Era" in an initiation by fire. For many, the operas reinforced our primal attraction to fire, and our need for destruction and rebirth. There's an unmistakable feeling of release in the act of burning that which we've created, particularly when a community has worked together for a period of time to create something complex and large in scale. Whether letting go of a personal issue or releasing collective energy, the feeling is powerful and seems to awaken ancestral memories, or at the very least, a sense of wonder.

Photo 4. The Temple of Tears by David Best, 2001. Scrap materials from a toy manufacturer, custom cut plywood, nails (85% recycled materials); 75' X 60' X 60'. © David Best. Photo © Neil Guy.

In 2001, as part of our Seven Ages theme, from Shakespeare's As You Like It, we explored the various stages of life, from birth to death. To mark the final stage, the Mausoleum, Petaluma artist David Best, 65 crew members, and 150 volunteers created The Temple of Tears, a wonderful Balinese-inspired structure made from the leftover cutout wooden panels from the production of children's toy dinosaur kits (Photo 4). The Temple quickly became the community's memorial to lost ones, and was constantly thronged with participants who left photos, letters, shrines and altars. Many also wrote the names of their dead on wooden tablets provided for this purpose. The Temple was burned on Sunday night, the final night of the event, and its burn was moving and somber. The audience was very quiet; some people wept while others called out the names of their dearly departed. The Temple and its burn on Sunday night have become part of our annual event. In contrast to the wild and energetic burn of the Man, the Temple burn provides the community with a still, contemplative experience, directing energy inward.

Photo 5. Ajna by Kasia Wojnarski, 2005. Steel tubing, steel wool, three propane feeds. 11' X 33' triangle. © Kasia Wojnarski. Photo © Jon Ross.


The opportunity to interact with fire, as well as to witness it at close range, is provided by several artists who create high intensity fire art. Have you ever been surrounded by fire while not simultaneously fearing your death? Several artists at Burning Man have provided that experience safely. One could walk through Kasia Wojnarksi's metal cylinder, Tunnel Vision, 2001, while surrounded by hundreds of propane-fed flames. Her subsequent work involves shapes derived from sacred geometry, which are laid out on the playa surface in propane-fed pipe, and which participants can enter (Photo 5). One could dance within fire in the Chamber of Creation, 2001, by Susan Glover and John Wilson, a 12-ft-high, vertical double DNA helix of fire, surrounded by a flaming gazebo (Photo 6). I don't think I'll ever forget that experience; inside the Chamber there was fire above, around, and below me, as propane-fuelled flames emerged from the linear structure of copper pipes. The line between terror and wonder, danger and safety, was nearly crossed; I was allowed to make this determination myself without interference from authorities. Bay Area machine artist Kal Spelletich often uses fire in his threatening participant-activated machines (Photo 7). His most extreme project, perhaps, is the Fire Cage, in which brave volunteers are enveloped, briefly, by spinning flames. In 2005 Mathew Blackwell gave participants the experience of being attacked by a flamethrower in his Dance Dance Immolation, based on the popular video game, Dance Dance Revolution. When the players missed the steps, a flamethrower doused them in fire. Fortunately flame-retardant proximity suits were issued to participants before they played the game. A gentler experience was provided in 2002 by Kiki Pettit, who used a mixture of white gas and water to fill her lovely Egeria firefall, a tribute to the Roman goddess of fountains (Photo 8). One could scoop up flaming water and for a precious moment, hold fire in one's hands.

Photo 6. The Chamber of Creation by Susan Glover and John Wilson, 2001. Propane-fed steel tubing and copper pipe. 15' X 30' diameter. Photo © Bucky Brian. Photo 7. Fire Shower by Kal Spelletich, 2004. Steel, pipe fittings, DC motor and controller, 8' X 3' X 3'. © Kal Spelletich. Photo © Waldemar Horwatt. Photo 8. Egeria by Kiki Pettit, 2002. Copper, steel, ceramics, water, fuel, 12' X 10' diameter. Photo © Gabe Kirchheimer.


An interesting element of fire art on the playa is digital technology; many of the artists have backgrounds in computer science and engineering, and have used their knowledge and expertise to invent new ways of manipulating fire. The great challenge for them is the alkaline playa dust, which is very fine and seeps into every possible place, generally interfering with electronic systems.

Tim Black is a systems engineer who designs prototypes and one of a kind items for companies in Silicon Valley. In 2000, he created the L2K ring, a large ring of digitally sequenced light pods imbedded in the playa surface around the man, which we have used every year since its inception. In 2003, Tim brought fire into his digital art projects with the Voice of Fire, in which he attempted to modulate flames with the human voice. While the project worked fine off the desert, on the playa the dust interfered with its inner workings and the sound was minimal. With a similar background to Tim, engineer Lucy Hoskings has created a midi keyboard that translates key movement into flames which emerge from metal organ pipes mounted vertically to the back of a vehicle known as Satanās Calliope.

Lee Chubb discovered, in 2002, while working on audio controllers for an audio art project, that he could connect pressure sensitive touchpads to a grid of flamethrowers to achieve manual manipulation of fire. Participants controlled the flamethrowers in his Swamp Gas installation by drawing patterns on a pressure sensitive input pad, which were then reproduced in flames on the grid. Lee tells us, "Gestural control of flame taps into people's minds at a very powerful level. It's great fun to 'play' the grid for spectators, and it's even more fun to watch what happens when other people play it. A personality change occurs in them, and even the most timid participant can become a chest beating, howling pyro dervish when they realize their control over such a primal force."

Photo 9. ThermoKraken by Therm, 2002. Steel, stainless steel, aluminum, titanium, magnesium alloy, copper, plastic, rubber, porcelain, wood, 23' X 4' X 4". Photo © Mike Woolson.

The ThermoKraken, first displayed on the playa in 2002, and designed and built by THERM, an East Bay collective, uses state of the art engineering as well as digital technology to manipulate pressurized propane, denatured alcohol, and colorant metal salts, resulting in spectacular flame effects. This menacing 23-ft-tall metal plant form emits both liquid and gas fire in three horizontal directions as well as straight up in a vaporized liquid geyser. It contains four discrete fire pieces, requiring four operators to manipulate. Three pods exude infrared radiation and emit blue and green flames and occasional subsonic booms. Flower elements within the pods use propane and methanol fuel to create dazzling light displays.


Black Rock City has always been a welcoming home to all manner of flame-producing devices including flamethrowers, fireball generators, smoke ring machines, and propane pulse jets. Artists now incorporate these effects into their sculptures in surprising ways.

Photo 10. Passage by Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito, 2005. Steel pipe, scrap metal, found objects, chain, rope, cast concrete. Female figure is 30' tall, child is 20' tall. © Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito. Photo © Goldilox.

In 1998, Dan das Mann created a large metal tree made of copper tubing which was placed in the Keyhole, the central hub of our city. Some of the tree branches were piped with water, and others with propane. By day, the tree dripped ice water onto grateful participants, and by night, the tree was lit by flames burning on the tips of its branches. Dan's Faces of Man, 2000, featured a 15-ft copper face which cried poignant tears of fire. He worked with Karen Cusolito in 2005 to bring us Passage, huge metal figures of a mother and child which trailed flaming footprints behind them, as they appeared to walk away from the Man (Photo 10). Flames dripped from the mother's hand into the child's, symbolizing the passing of the Burning Man ethos from one generation to the next, and also its progress into the world beyond the desert. The light from these flames goes beyond decoration to give meaning and drama to the sculptures.

Photo 11. The Angel of the Apocalypse by the Flaming Lotus Girls, 2005. Mild steel, stainless steel and driftwood, 18" X 50' X 50'. © Pouneh Mortazavi. Photo © Tom Pendergast.

The Flaming Lotus Girls of San Francisco make large-scale sculpture featuring various flame effects, which they also endow with interactivity, as many of the flames are participant controlled. They have been bringing their fire and metal installations to Burning Man since 1999, and over time their work has become larger, more complex, and more technically sophisticated in its use of fire. In 2005, their Angel of the Apocalypse (Photo 11) portrayed a huge bird lying on the ground, its 35-ft-long body made of driftwood, and its 16 curving, upright wings made of stainless steel alternately piped with kerosene and propane. Its 12-ft-tall formed steel head featured hand-blown glass eyes and contained a fireplace; the beak functioned as a chimney. Participants gathered nightly in the space delineated by the wings, enjoying proximity to the flames and resting on the driftwood body. They could activate some of the flame effects in the wings by pressing a button. The effect was that of being held in the warmth of its flaming wings, and somehow produced a feeling of security instead of fear.


In 2002, Nate Smith, a Utah artist, brought his fire vortex project to the playa. His interest in fire went beyond creating a flame effect as part of a sculpture; he was exploring the possibilities of actually sculpting fire by shaping it like a plastic material. To do this he had to become familiar with the physics of fire, learning how to alter and control its shape by creating air currents in an enclosed environment into which he introduced a propane-fed flame. Within a circular arrangement of high-powered fans which in conjunction with the updraft of the flame created a vortex of air, he used a "fire wand" to inject fire into the swirling air currents, which produced tight fire vortices up to 60' in height. He returned over the following two years with a Fire Vortex machine, using fans and a remotely controlled propane flame to once again create these towering fire tubes (Photo 12). Nate's primary interest is in the physical nature of fire, and he has learned how to coax it into profoundly beautiful configurations.

Photo 12. Singularity Machine by Nate Smith, 2004. 12 steel fans, rubber hoses, steel pipe, liquid propane, 45' X 40' diameter. © Nate Smith. Photo © Gabe Kirchheimer.


Efforts to define the fire art of Black Rock City raise the question, "Is it a science experiment or is it art?" The wonder of Burning Man is that projects that may be perceived as other than "art" are elevated to the status of art by being presented in a very public context in which participants are encouraged to use their gifts and skills to create whatever they're passionate about and have the skills and knowledge to make. Huge columns of carefully controlled fire Like Jim Mason's ICP project, may be considered by some folks to be simply a physics project, machines anyone with the right instructions could build. But when brought to the Black Rock Desert, carefully arranged and timed, and presented in the context of radical experience, they transcend the limitations of elemental science and pose more profound questions: What is our relationship to fire? Why are we so drawn to this element? Why does big fire seem to touch such a deep place in each of us? Anyone transfixed and moved in the presence of huge, powerful fire can attest to the feelings of transcendence and awe it engenders. Here we are, experiencing the same fear and beauty that people felt in the presence of fire in the early stages of human culture. To use fire as an art form connects us in a deep and visceral way to a primary element that has always been part of human experience. Linking it to technology and bending it to our will as part of an art experience simply expands the already broad definition of art and begs the question, "If it's not art, then what is it?" Giving people a profound and challenging emotional, even primal experience within a carefully constructed environment seems certainly to satisfy the definition of "art." Beyond that, fire art can be, simply, beautiful.


"Fire Art of Burning Man" will be published in print in a special issue of Leonardo Vol. 40, No. 5 (2007), available from the MIT Press in the summer of 2007. See http://mitpressjournals.org/leon for subscription information.

For more images and texts about Burning Man artists and festivals, including some of the artists discussed here, see "The Art of Burning Man," a special section of Leonardo guest edited by Louis M. Brill and LadyBee (and including an introduction by Louis M. Brill and an article by LadyBee), published in print in Leonardo Vol. 36, No. 5 (2003). Back issues are available from the MIT Press.

The Leonardo Gallery is published periodically in print and online. Visit past Leonardo Gallery exhibitions at the Leonardo Gallery Archive.


1. Small After All World by the LA Cacophony Society, 1999

2. The Man Burns, 2005, http://images.burningman.com/index.cgi?image=22929

3. La Mystere de Papa Loko by Pepe Ozan, 1999, http://images.burningman.com/index.cgi?image=16407

4. The Temple of Tears by David Best, 2001, http://images.burningman.com/index.cgi?image=5991

5. Ajna by Kasia Wojnarski, 2005, http://images.burningman.com/index.cgi?image=24594

6.The Chamber of Creation by Susan Glover and John Wilson, 2001, http://images.burningman.com/index.cgi?image=5583

7. Fire Shower by Kal Spelletich, 2004, http://images.burningman.com/index.cgi?image=16475

8. Egeria by Kiki Pettit, 2002, http://images.burningman.com/index.cgi?image=14742

9. ThermoKraken by Therm, 2002, http://images.burningman.com/index.cgi?image=10265

10. Passage by Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito, 2005.

11. The Angel of the Apocalypse by the Flaming Lotus Girls, 2005, http://images.burningman.com/index.cgi?image=23643

12. Nate Smith's Singularity Machine, 2004, http://images.burningman.com/index.cgi?image=19034

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Updated 13 April 2007.

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