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'Burning Man' Art Comes to Smithsonian

A visitor to Burning Man watches an art burn
A visitor to Burning Man watches an art burn
'Burning Man' Art Comes to Smithsonian
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The Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., is exploring the art of the yearly Burning Man event held in Nevada.

The show, No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, opened March 30. The Renwick is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Every August, a temporary city rises from the dust in northwestern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. As many as 75,000 people gather for the eight-day event called Burning Man. They sculpt, build, perform and invent in many ways while there. Organizers have called Burning Man a “crucible of creativity.” The attendees are called “Burners.” Each attendee is equal part observer and actor at Burning Man.

The event’s name comes from the burning of a huge, wooden representation of a human, known as the “Man.” It takes place on Saturday night, hours before the event ends. A crowd gathers, the model is lit on fire, and celebrants watch it burn.

The first “Man” was burned in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco, California. That wooden work stood less than three meters high. Now they are always much bigger. The tallest ever was 32 meters.

But more than the “Man” turns to ash at Burning Man. Many works of art are burned during the eight days. The immediate and the temporary are important ideas at the event. Total respect for the environment is also important. Burners are expected to remove from the area all evidence of themselves and the activity when they leave.

Stephanie Stebich is the director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She said that the Burning Man festival provides artists a chance to “dream big and create large-scale works with new technologies.”

But Burning Man is not easy to attend. It is deep in the desert, the living conditions are difficult and tickets are costly. Many who want to go cannot. But, now, people in Washington can get much closer to the experience.

On a recent Saturday, visitors formed a long line in front of the Renwick. As they entered, one of the first artworks they saw was Temple, an installation from artist David Best.

At Burning Man, Best is known for designing huge structures in the style of holy buildings. People use them as spiritual centers during their stay at the event. Best told Renwick officials that there are not enough places where people can gather to think about loss. The artist said Temple is such a place without connection to any single religion.

Best’s work is always lit on fire at Burning Man. That will not happen at Renwick Gallery, of course. But the show's organizers have included other activities that are similar to what happens at Burning Man. Maybe most important is that Renwick visitors interact with the art at the exhibit. This is why the show is called “No Spectators.”

For example, visitors to Temple are provided wooden cards on which to write about memories or other thoughts of lost loved ones. They can then place the piece in small openings of the temple structure.

In this way, Temple is changed by those who enter it.

Visitors are also encouraged to touch and take photos of other artworks. FoldHaus’s Shrumen Lumen is an example. The three large models of mushrooms were created by the traditional Japanese art of folding paper, or origami. The mushrooms light up and grow when people are near. Children seem to especially enjoy this combination of technology and artistic skill.

Artist Richard Wilk’s Evotrope is also interactive. The artwork of wheels and metal framing holds a large, flat round piece in its center. Attached to it are images of a blue eye: open, closed, and several positions in between. When visitors use the device to make the circle spin, the eye seems to open and close.

The Renwick Gallery show also has a virtual reality area where visitors can explore past Burning Mans as if they were there.

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man will close on January 21, 2019.

I'm Caty Weaver.

Reporter Xiaotong Zhou wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

cruciblen. a difficult test or challenge

large-scaleadj. covering or involving a large area

encouragev. to make (someone) more likely to do something

virtual – adj. very close to being something without actually being it