The ‘Religion’ of Burning Man

Review: "No Spectators" at the Renwick Gallery

A lazer-cut lantern / Photo by Alec Dent

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As Burning Man comes to an end this weekend, wealthy hippies and counterculture types will soon leave the Black Rock Desert in Nevada and return to normal society, perhaps with a newfound sense of community or maybe some new enlightenment. Or a police record for drug possession. The festival is known for many things—heavy drug use not least among them—like its themes of "radical inclusion," the celebrities it attracts—noted miniature submarine enthusiast Elon Musk is a regular attendee—and of course the tradition that gives it its name, the burning of an enormous effigy of a man. But as this secular mecca has grown in popularity, another of its elements has taken on greater importance: the art installations that fill the desert before being set ablaze like the Man.

Fortunately for those of us who can't make it out to Nevada this year, there is another way to see some of the art normally reserved only for the "Burners," as attendees like to call themselves. The Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., is currently home to some re-creations of Burning Man installations and even a few pieces that escaped the end-of-festival flames.

The exhibit—titled "No Spectators" after a Burner rallying cry for engagement—takes up both floors of the Renwick and has six additional statues scattered throughout D.C. Beginning the tour inside the museum, visitors are immediately greeted with an enormous, ornate paper arch. It is, the placard next to it says, inspired by religious structures. While religiously influenced, this is entirely a secular work of art. It's adorned with black and white photographs, many of which are oddly reminiscent of a gothic carnival sideshow, the focus of which is most often man and nature. It is a religious artifact for the areligious and serves as the perfect piece to start the tour as it gives visitors an idea of what's to come, and, indeed, an idea of what Burning Man actually is: a secular religious gathering.

Like every religious gathering, Burning Man is full of ceremony and tradition. There is, for starters, a dress code. Burners see themselves as "the entertainment" for the week, an explanatory sign at the Renwick states, and they are encouraged to dress as outlandishly as they can. Burning Man participants show up in things like suits of chainmail with oriental designs that reek of cultural appropriation or leather dominatrix outfits and pagan-looking, horned headdresses, if they wear anything at all. A few of these items are on display at the Renwick, with macabre dresses and steampunk suits showcasing the Burners' fashion sensibilities.

Vehicles, too, require a special panache for the festival—there are no cars, only "mutant vehicles." They must be registered with Black Rock's own DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles). The Renwick acquired a few for the exhibit, the most eye-catching of which is a large, pedal-powered, mélange metal dragon. Nearby there is a fully-functioning movie theater on wheels and a three-seater bicycle with an enormous zoetrope wheel in the middle of it.

On the second floor, the focus shifts to the architecture and technology of Burning Man. There are a few structures on the playa, but the most prominent of them, aside from the Man of course, is the annually assembled temple. Every year since 2000, volunteers have come together to help construct a temporary temple to serve as a place for quiet contemplation. One room upstairs features sketches of many of the past temples. Inspired by eastern architecture, they're all quite beautiful. Unfortunately at the end of each festival, they go the way of the Man. But visitors to the Renwick can get an idea of what they are like through the re-creation of a temple's interior in the ballroom. Made entirely of wood, it is a sight to behold, with intricate patterns of carved wood chips filling the walls. On each chip is a message written by a visitor. Some are in memory of lost loved ones. Others are used for love notes. Many carry messages of encouragement. And one simply reads: "MAGA!"

The temple is a place where Burners are encouraged to bring their troubles and pains. A sign in the Renwick informs visitors the temple is "always for one person." It continues, "If you have lost someone dear to you, if you are suffering, if you need forgiveness, or shelter, or comfort, this Temple is for you." It is meant to be a religious place, a sanctuary for the anguished, but it is stripped of all religious meaning. The altars there are impressive, but they are dedicated to no higher power.

The technological exhibits are housed in a few rooms next to the temple and are introduced with a sign that emphasizes the festival's connection to Silicon Valley. It states that "it's not surprising that Burning Man has always embraced technology." Small-scale tech, like cell-phones and laptops, are frowned upon, as they distract Burners from the communal experience, but large-scale tech installations are always welcome. Technology is a sign of innovation and human progress, a concept Burning Man likes to celebrate, and the enormous robots and lasers brought to Burning Man serve as monuments to the works of man.

The first of the tech pieces at the Renwick resemble enormous decorational lanterns, with a light that constantly changes colors emitting from within, sending the patterns out onto the walls and ceiling. Another room houses enormous robotic mushrooms that change color and move based on interaction. Stepping in a certain place near the mushrooms' bases cause their heads to flatten or expand. Even housed in the cramped rooms of the Renwick, the tech installations manage to be beautiful, but one imagines they must be all the more magnificent out under the desert night sky.

Finally, in the room next door, is the Man. A simple, wood skeleton model with its arms raised, the scale model doesn't come close to the towering 40-foot figure that falls to ash each year. The holiest of ceremonies for the Burners, the burning of the Man is meant to represent "radical self-expression" according to Larry Harvey, one of the founders of the festival. It is their Eucharist, for just as Christians commune with their God through their ceremony, so too do the Burners. The difference is, of course, their god is the self.

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