An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 39

Burning Man, 2018--An Antiquarian's Point of View

I have changed the format for this one newsletter in order to talk about what I consider to be one of the greatest art festivals on earth, i.e. Burning Man. Burning man takes place in the Black Rock desert about one hundred miles north of Reno, Nevada the week prior to Labor Day. The desert, for about a week or so, becomes the third largest city in Nevada with close to 72,000 people, plus a ton of sculpture, tents, campers and other temporary abodes. I visited for the third time this year, my previous attendances being 2011-12. The photo above is me with my two children, Henry and Alice outside the experiential, "Electric Lazy" which is hard to describe as anything other than, "it made my back feel terrific". I'd like to add that my back has hardly ever felt poorly, so this was quite amazing to me. In any case, the reputation of Burning Man is that it is counter culture, a description that I would say is not altogether accurate. It is highly organized and is a place where you can go and do precisely what you wish, as long as you don't insist on doing drugs in an obvious manner in wide open spaces as there are lots of cops looking for such illegality. (I smell more pot wandering around NYC than I did at Burning Man.) The pleasure of the event is that you can find what you are looking for even though you might not suspect that you were looking for precisely what you found. For example, I went to a lecture on beekeeping, a hobby I once had but which I do no longer. Bees are fascinating in so many ways and the lecture I went to, which was run by a professional beekeeper from Colorado, was added to by beekeepers from Australia, Alaska, Death Valley and Spokane who all had different takes on how to deal with systemic poisons, hive management and the future of bees in the US. The discussion was lively and informed. I also went to a lecture on Platonic solids, how to beat the lottery, art at Burning Man and several more. But lectures are what fill my days. My mornings, just post dawn, were spent bicycling around the complex of camps looking for unusual camps (people go to great lengths as I saw the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler building to name just a few of the grander camps) and then out to the perimeter to look for sculptures I had not already seen. It is safe to say that it is probably impossible to see every art work on display--there is just so much. Furthermore, what you see in the day is transformed in the night when the lights turn on which is usually how I ended my day--a quick tour to see everything lit up at night--the vast space of the desert humming with spectral intensity from lit up sculptures to drones, kites, gas flare-ups, lasers and more. A quick tour and I am in bed looking forward to the next dawn.

My experience of Burning Man is about appreciating things I would not see anywhere else in the world. It is hard to explain how intense it is as the environment is so very unusual. The Black Rock desert is the largest flat space on earth, or so I have heard, and it is flanked by substantial mountains on three sides. There is a quality of a super large play pen and when you see the "art cars"--cars or 
buses or some kind of motorized transport that are transformed into myriad shapes such as, for example, elephants, sail boats, weird creatures, a front porch--you realize you are not far off the truth. There are no cash transactions save for the purchase of ice. Otherwise, you need to bring water and food to last you while you are there, so there is an alternative reality here that cannot be found anywhere else. Such parameters add to the experience. Furthermore, there is dust, dust that is so fine that it gets into the pores of your skin. The photo above shows the three of us as platinum blondes--not true, that is the dust. Numerous showers are required to beat the dust when you leave, but when you are there you will either be driven crazy by it or you come to accept that this hardship is part of the experience. This year, I am relieved to say, there was not much heat, ninety-five degrees at maximum which is mild compared to the one hundred and ten degrees (or more) that it can be. The event is clearly not for everyone, but I would venture to say that the art lovers of this world would enjoy it immensely, hardships notwithstanding. The art is not all great, indeed I would say that there is a lot of kitsch, mostly well done and when you find it in the desert, quite different than kitsch you might find in a gallery or museum. This year's art was not, in my opinion, quite as good as what I have seen before, but 2012 was a very high bar, art-wise. There are, however, always cool things to see such as the house that held the same house holding the same house down to doll scale. The "ME" scupture with the mirror in front of the "Me". The giant jelly fish which was spectacular at night. These are just a few of the things I enjoyed. And, of course, there are the people who attend Burning Man and the things that they wear--there is an artistry in some of the costumes that is just amazing. One of my daughter's camp mates had a booth at a fashion show in Brooklyn shortly after Burning Man with her unique and striking jewelry and apparently nearly sold out her booth. The ideas floating around Burning Man are extraordinary.

There is no doubt that Burning Man is an unreal environment, but isn't that the point? Frieze, TEFAF, Art Basel and virtually any and all shows are unreal as well. At Burning Man, you get to live it, you wear it, you see it day in and day out and it becomes part of you. Burning Man's enormous success thrives on this immersive experience. Imagination unleashed is a powerful incentive for those who create and for those who appreciate creativity. It is stunning to see this creativity on such a massive scale with so many people involved in the process. It certainly doesn't mitigate the world's ills, but there is a hope that comes from the experience. I am not sure precisely what that hope is for or about and I don't wish to seem a Pollyanna talking about how everyone gets along so well while they are there as I had a real jerk parked next to my RV. But, if you can stand the dust and heat, I totally recommend the experience. And, if you are lucky, you will also get to see what I mean about my back feeling better after you have visited the Electric Lazy.
The 747 art car, the Burning Man temple and a NYC snapshot.