An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 254

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 2, 2023 - Issue 254

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

My children, Henry and Alice, are far and away the most extraordinary people in my life, partly because they are my children and are all the great things great children can be, but primarily for their spirit of adventure and can-do. I have attended the Burning Man Festival in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada four times now, this year the most recent, with the support of my children's camp, Holi High Camp, an adventure and a half by any measure. This year, of course, the festival made world wide news as unusual weather (rain!) hit the desert and the clay surface turned into a slippery, gooey mess. Fortunately, my son, daughter-in-law and I had all decided to leave on the Friday and it was in the nick of time as two hours or so later we would have been unable to leave. My daughter was supposed to come, but she wanted just one more day--which turned into three more days. She was none the worse for wear, however, and it was clear that the NY Times and all the other newspapers were sensationalizing the situation just a tad. They do have to sell newspapers, after all.

I go to Burning Man for the simple reason that I go anywhere, which is to enjoy the environment. Strictly speaking, the environment is harsh, the clay of the desert has an alkali component to it and when it is dry, hot and windy, it can get into your eyes. That is why you need goggles of some sort. Mine broke this year and so I was without, which led to certain discomfort. But the environment of the Playa is also home to an extraordinay aesthetic range of art in all kinds of forms. Most of it is sculptural, but not all of it and you can ride your bike around from one sculpture to the next--many are interactive--for quite a long time and not see all there is to see. In other words, it is a kind of art exhibition that you can find in few places in the world simply because of the vast amount of space in which it is situated. I have to say that it is awe inspiring every time you go out to see it.

The most obvious question is whether the art on the "Playa", the area that is the open space surrounded by camps and various abodes, any good? My answer is twofold. No, the art is not all good, but it is great to see such a vast open space filled with art. It is similar to what I referenced while visiting Barcelona--the zeitgeist is almost more important than the individual pieces. Of course, the Sagrada Familia is not matchable by anything on the Playa as indeed, the quality you find in general in Barcelona is superb, but that isn't the point. The point is that you are in, and become, part of the art on the Playa and that is unique. As you watch people riding from artwork to artwork, you see them reacting to it as you react to them as they watch you in the same fashion. And, through the years, some of the artworks have been quite incredible. The most memorable piece for me this year being the Pegasus, or flying horse which, when lit at night, had an eerie quality--the old Texaco flying horse come to life, but bigger and far more dramatic.

Five or six years ago, I was in Basel for the Basel Art Fair. It is a huge event with a building that had several floors of galleries, mostly showing contemporary paintings, packed pretty tightly together. I am not an aficionado of contemporary art, but I appreciated seeing it and being there, but if you don't have skin in the game, it can pall after a while. And how to know what the next big thing may be is not in my resume. Next door to these galleries was a large shed that was essentially trying to do what Burning Man does in the Playa. For me, the shed felt forced as if it was trying to be a hip answer to showing large scale pieces and it felt constrained by lack of space, despite the artists' efforts which, if I remember correctly, weren't at all bad. It was the venue that was inappropriate, not the art. And this is precisely why some art needs space--you can make mediocre art more interesting, great art, like Pegasus, just flies. And I haven't even begun to talk about the individual camps at Burning Man which are also aimed at creating experiences that are creatively extraordinary. The Tokyo alleyway of the Golden Guy (there were two and I only went to one) was one of these--a back alley in Tokyo with restaurants, hotels, tea houses, massage parlors and more. I recommend the experience of Burning Man to anyone who has a chance to go--it is amazing.