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The Leonardo Gallery

The Running Man

by Dan Ng

© Dan Ng. Photo © Carole Franger.

The Running Man was a mechanical sculpture that I constructed and brought to Burning Man in 1999 and 2000. This articulated human figure was lit on fire and towed behind a vehicle, creating the appearance of a person running while on fire. From concept to execution, The Running Man was spontaneous, unpredictable and slightly out of control. His purpose was nothing more than to freak people out, but The Running Man did, quite literally, embody the sense of random and spectacular danger that is the attraction of Burning Man for many people.

The Running Man has no message or purpose other than creating an unexpected visual spectacle and eliciting an immediate, visceral reaction from the viewer. His fiery "runs" were not scheduled or announced and lasted only a minute or two, which increased the random and surprising nature of the experience.

The Running Man was directly inspired by two animated, bicycle-based pieces by artists unknown to me from Burning Man 1998: the EL-wire galloping horse (See www.1reality.org/horseweb/makingTheHorse.html) and a flapping bird made of electric lights. These beautiful pieces impressed me immensely and begged the very natural Burning Man question: "How can I do that with fire?" I envisioned an articulated, three-dimensional human figure. Running. On fire. The motive grew into simply freaking people out. So The Running Man was conceived.

I built The Running Man out of found metal from vacant lots and roadsides. This arbitrary design constraint had no purpose other than added challenge and the general appeal of recycling/reuse and found-object art. Some of the more interesting parts include nine bicycles, a bed frame, part of a wrought iron fence, a big rig's air filter, refrigerator shelves, an airport luggage cart and a barbecue grill.

Given the randomness of the materials, the creation of The Running Man was a spontaneous, trial-and-error process. My only specific goal was to create a jointed human figure animated through the action of a bicycle rolling backwards. When the bicycle rolled backwards, the movement of the rear wheel would force the cranks and pedals to rotate and, through a series of rods and levers, move The Running Man's limbs.

The Running Man was originally wrapped in Kevlar firewick and doused with liquid fuel. I hoped the firewick would survive multiple uses, but much of it burned away after only one run. Unlike firespinning, in which the flame is carried away from the wick, The Running Man's wrappings are entirely engulfed in flames. He burned through $300 of firewick in his three 1999 runs. In 2000, he was wrapped in old cotton rags and T-shirts, which was much better as the materials were free and also burned down to ash, leaving almost no residue.

Wrapped, fueled and lit by handheld torch, The Running Man was towed behind a vehicle, ranging from a bicycle to an art car. What The Running Man looked like in action was less interesting to me than people's reactions to him. Most people tend to remember very clearly what they were doing and what they felt when they saw him run.

Given Burning Man's larger attendance and necessarily improved safety awareness in recent years, it would now be unwise if not impossible to attempt such a highly mobile and entirely unconstrained piece of fire art. The Running Man now lives in the realm of stories that start off, "I remember one year at Burning Man, ya know, waaay back in 2000, I saw this one thing . . ." The Running Man is now happily retired, holding up vines in the garden, daydreaming of blazing glories past.

Dan Ng, daredevilnospam at yahoo dot com
Web: www.bweebweebwee.com/runningman/

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Updated 16 April 2007.

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