In an airy studio in the Los Angeles art colony known as The Brewery, Richard Wilks is attaching Medusa-like tentacles that crown his latest work of art for the Burning Man festival: “Queen Jellie.” He constructed the undulating metal sculpture — part jellyfish and part zoetrope — from plasma-cut and hand-welded steel, which form a gracefully twisting base that supports an organic-looking column topped by the jellyfish’s delicate umbrella.
When people encounter “Queen Jellie” on the Playa — the dry lakebed of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert where Burning Man will take place later this summer — they will be able to manually power a rotating mirrored platform that surrounds the base of the sculpture, twirling its elegant corona. At night, Wilks plans to shine a stroboscope on the piece. When the rotation hits 24 frames/second, voila: The jellyfish will appear to levitate, and dozens of hollow cast-art resin bubbles will “float” up and down the vertical column and burble in the jellyfish’s bell. “Each bubble,” Wilks says, “is etched with one of eight symbols that speaks to a different layer of my exploration of water.”
Welcome to the art of Burning Man. Over the years, the festival has developed a reputation as many things — an exploration of community and art, a fleeting alternative civilization, a hedonistic party for rich Silicon Valley technologists getting in touch with their hippie side.
But it has also become a wellspring of spectacular art, like San Francisco artist Peter Hudson’s 24-foot tall, interactive tree-like metal structure with 18 human-sized monkeys hanging from its branches, which spun when passers-by pounded on drums along its base, creating a beguiling animation — a serpentine hand feeding an apple to a monkey. Or Los Angeles artist Mike Ross’ “Big Rig Jig,” two 18-wheeler tanker trucks improbably curving around each other and arching up like vine tendrils twisting skyward. Or Bay Area artist Laura Kimpton’s iconic “Monumental Word” sculptures — literally, gigantic depictions of words.
And then, of course, there is the titular Burning Man, the wooden figure built at the site that is burned in celebration at the end of the gathering. At this year’s festival, scheduled from August 26 to September 3, the “Man” is expected to rise to 70 feet before it is consumed in the final inferno.
As the art of Burning Man has become more ambitious, it has transcended its desert origins and become coveted by collectors, galleries and municipalities. Many works created for Burning Man have found homes outside Black Rock City in public spaces, private collections and even museums.
The Smithsonian Museum’s Renwick Gallery is featuring an exhibition called “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” through next Jan. 21 (some of the art will depart Sept. 16). The exhibition brings large-scale works from the festival both into the august gallery near the White House and out into the surrounding neighborhood. It includes costumes, jewelry, video and photography to emphasize the breadth of self-expression at the festival.
Nora Atkinson, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at the Renwick Gallery, says she has watched the artwork of Burning Man grow in scale and complexity for the past decade or so, developing into a singular artistic genre. “Being part of the Renwick — someone who is trying to tell the whole American story of who we are as a nation — this seemed like a story that hadn’t been told,” she says, “yet that said something about who we are and that is a uniquely American movement.”
Many of the creations intrigue her, especially from the perspective of craft. “Like traditional craft, this work exists outside the mainstream art market — largely uncommercial as one of its core principles — and much of it has strong roots in the handmade and maker culture,” Atkinson says. “As we enter the digital era, I see it having a resonance with the history of craft and its utopian philosophies.”
Lore charts the birth of Burning Man to the shores of San Francisco’s Baker Beach in June 1986. A group of 20 or so friends gathered there for a bonfire at which Burning Man founder Larry Harvey (who died in April) immolated an eight-foot-tall wooden structure he called “the Man.”
Over the years, “the Man” grew in size, so did the crowds, and so did San Francisco park officials’ concerns about potential fire hazard. In 1990, the event moved to the Black Rock Desert, where about 350 people gathered to erect a 40-foot-tall “Man.” Over the years, Burning Man has grown into a major event — this year, some 70,000 Burners are anticipated to attend.
The happening is known for its culture of openness and experimentation; Burners call it a “permission engine.” The tens of thousands who convene there from all over the world — with strong representation from California — gather to create an intentional community, Black Rock City, dedicated to self-expression and self-reliance. Yes, there are sex and drugs aplenty, but it’s also about the gamut of human experience, from AA meetings to yoga workshops to faith-based communities. Amid it all, fantastical works of art have become a major attraction.
A GIANT LAUGH
For months leading up to the festival, artists have been working to create sculptures to display on the Playa. At a worksite in Reno, Nev., Kimpton’s newest “Monumental Word” sculpture is taking shape. She first attended Burning Man in 2003 and says it changed her life in many ways. For one, she explains, “I met an art car builder who ended up becoming my second husband, Jeff Schomberg, who builds all of the words now — I used to build them with him.”
For this year’s festival, Schomberg (no longer her husband) and a crew have been cutting, welding and buffing metal to create a 12-foot-high version of the phrase Kimpton finds herself texting often these days: “Ha Ha …”. It will be powder-coated white and splattered with car paint.
Why “Ha Ha …”? Says Kimpton: “I communicate with my own language. I don’t use vocabulary, I don’t use grammar.” “Ha Ha …” is her favorite refrain, how she laughs via text and also her exhortation that people should lighten up in troubling times.
Kimpton grew up in Wilmette, Ill., north of Chicago. At the age of five, her father, hotelier Bill Kimpton, moved to San Francisco, and she began spending two months a year there. “When I was seven, I saw a nude family jog by while I was waiting in line at Ghirardelli Square … so I was like, ‘This is where I’m coming, without a question.’”
As Burning Man has become popularized and publicized, her “Monumental Word” sculptures have become some of its most famous imagery, in part because they are so photogenic. Each year since 2009, Kimpton and her team have erected enormous words, some as much as 30 feet high or 100 feet wide. Like “Ha Ha … ,” most are made from metal sheets perforated with laser-cut birds, which represent her father, who died in 2001. The birds have become the artist’s trademark and a motif that also appears in her paintings, collages and assemblage sculpture.
The ideas for her “Monumental Word” sculptures come from a deeply personal place. Kimpton has dyslexia, so letters and words have always been powerful, vexing and somewhat mysterious to her. Her first giant word was “MOM,” which confronted her psychological relationships with her mother and daughter. It also reads the same in all directions: from the front or back, left or right.
Two years later, she created “LOVE,” and Burners flocked to it. “That’s when the ‘art’ happens,” says Kimpton, when the works are out on the Playa and people are climbing atop them. “The joy that my words give people is so amazing, so that, to me, is the art.”
PLEASE TOUCH THE ART
In many ways, the art of Burning Man — much of it a surrealist Mad-Max-meets-Mardi Gras style with an open invitation to experience it hands-on — stands apart from the rest of the art world. Unlike in museums or galleries, where patrons seldom encounter the artists whose work is on display, artists at Burning Man are on site and eager to engage with viewers. Each year the festival chooses a theme for the year’s art — this year’s is Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” — but many artists follow their own muse.
Richard Wilks also cherishes the human interaction with his work. It’s one reason why he often creates mobile pieces that he can drive right to where the action is. Wilks grew up in the San Diego area during the early days of BMX dirt bikes, when Southern California kids began hitting dirt trails and riding around suburban neighborhoods on off-road sport bicycles like those they ogled in racing and stunt riding. “Where I grew up, we needed a bike to get around,” explains Wilks, “and we used to hack our bikes” — customizing them to make them unique.
Fast-forward a few decades, and he has become known for the vehicular, interactive constructions he has brought to Burning Man nearly every year since 2009. One of the sculptures that has made its way to the Renwick Gallery is his “EvoTrope,” which consists of three unicycles affixed to arching bars that meet in the center above a large wheel set with illustrated wood blades, which rotate as the lead unicycle propels the work. The steam-punkish, interactive contraption is a marvel in motion — as the blades spin, an animated fish flies into a human eye, which then morphs into an image of the earth. Wilks is a scuba diver and nature lover, and his work often reflects his passion for the environment.
This year, his contribution is “Queen Jellie,” with its environmental overtones. And while it’s designed to be seen at its best at night, Wilks has figured out how to make it interesting during the day, too. Wilks has developed Ilumiscope, an app that allows visitors to experience “Queen Jellie” in all of her animated glory. “All those wiggles and etched designs,” Wilks explains, “have been designed to flow like a waterfall when spinning” — and those elements will appear vividly when viewed through the app, day or night.
SIGNS OF THEIR TIMES
For the past few years, the landscape of Black Rock City has been dotted with yellow “Yield”-like signs that read “BREATHE” and “GROW,” a stop sign that says “START,” and a black-and-white “ONE WAY” sign that is standard in every way but one: It’s heart-shaped. This year’s installation, the brainchild of Los Angeles artist Scott Froschauer, is titled “You Are” and consists of eight signs in a circle that from a distance appear to warn “DO NOT ENTER.”
“It’s a real tease for Burners,” says Froschauer, noting that participants are used to roaming anywhere they please in the sprawling Burning Man compound. But when visitors get closer, they will realize the signs actually say things like “You Are Enough,” “You Are Loved,” “You Are Strong” and “You Are Capable,” and encircle street signs that pronounce “We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For.”
Froschauer lives and works in the Southern California foothills of Sun Valley on a property that once housed orange-grove equipment. His series “The Word on the Street” takes the familiar shape, color and typography of everyday street signs, but adds a twist: Rather than exhorting people with warnings, Froschauer’s signs offer affirmations.
The project was born at Burning Man, which Froschauer first attended in 2004. With a background in engineering and lighting, he has played key roles contributing to several sculptures on the Playa, including “Church Trap” (2013) by Rebekah Waites — a large-scale church that looked like it was plucked from the Bodie ghost town, tipped on its axis and held aloft by a huge pole — as well as “MÚCARO” (2017), a giant wooden owl by the artist who goes by El NiNO.
In 2013, Froschauer had a pivotal conversation with Burning Man founder Harvey about translating Burning Man ideologies into the “default world,” as Burners refer to our daily existence. Harvey shared this philosophy with Froschauer: People spend every day trying to get themselves on a path of stability and security and to stay on it.
The purpose of artists, Harvey believed, is “to litter the ground with alternative solutions,” so that when somebody gets pushed out of their comfort zone, they have something to turn to beyond commercialism and consumerism. It’s an idea that harmonizes with the Burning Man principles of gifting and de-commodification, and it resonated with Froschauer.
“At the time, I was doing stickers, street art,” Froschauer says. But he realized the work could be so much more. “Street signs occupy this highly evolved visual language that has to cut through the clutter of advertising. The street signs have even more power than the ads do.”
He hijacked the notion of street signage, and in 2014 installed a series of his own signs — guerilla-style — along the busy streets of Los Angeles. Overnight, the corner of 4th Street and Beaudry Avenue in downtown L.A. sported a diamond-shaped yellow sign, fabricated to the exact specifications of Department of Transportation signage, that simply said “RELAX.” Others followed, but eventually Froschauer stopped erecting them without permission lest they cause an accident.
His works at once push people out of their comfort zones, while simultaneously affirming them. “The underlying narrative of my pieces is this notion that you don’t need something else, you don’t need another product,” Froschauer says. “It’s an attempt to reconnect someone with themself in this moment of disturbance.”
LET IT BURN … OR NOT
Much of the art of Burning Man strikes an uncommon balance between confrontational and aspirational, sad and uplifting — expressing conflicting sentiments that feel right for our times. “A key notion,” Froschauer says, “is undermining dominant culture, the mainstream.”
Yet even residing in the digital age and while challenging the status quo, the art of Burning Man highlights humanity with an emphasis on process and community, a celebration of the handmade and recognition of the fleeting nature of life. “You burn the art and you build it all over again the next year,” the Renwick Gallery’s Atkinson says. “I love the idea that we’ve finally gotten to this point that we realize what is human is valuable and important and that humanism is going to continue.”
Of course, not all of the art created for Burning Man is ephemeral. Kimpton’s “LOVE” was acquired by Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa for its four-acre sculpture garden. The Tubbs Fire swept through the property last October, incinerating all of the winery’s buildings, including a winemaking facility, tasting room, barns and other dwellings.
But much of the art survived, including Kimpton’s enormous steel “LOVE.” In a poignant irony, a photograph of the gleaming piece standing strong in the charred landscape went viral on social media, and became a symbol for resilience and recovery in the wake of the fire — a perfect metaphor for the durability of the art of Burning Man.