“No Spectators”: a Burning Man exhibition

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CINCINNATI – For those outside the Burning Man and Pagan communities, the question is eternal: is the Burning Man festival a Pagan event?  The answer is no. Burning Man is a late summer experiment in community and art centered on ten principles: radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, gifting, decommodification, participation, immediacy, and leaving no trace.

While not explicitly Pagan, the event may be magical in its own right, and there may be rituals run by Pagans in attendance. The event started at a beach burn during the summer solstice in 1986. It still feels deeply connected to Paganism, though only 1.2% of attendees use the label “Pagan” to describe themselves. According to the annual “Afterburn Report” in 2015, 71.3% of attendees said they did not belong to a religion or a religious denomination.  Almost half, 45.8%, described themselves as “spiritual, not religious,” and the second largest category, at almost 24%, responds as atheist.

TWH reported on some challenges at the Burning Man event regarding ticketing and issues with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the US Department of the Interior. These issues appear to be resolved, and the event will take place again this year at Black Rock City from August 25 through September 2. As members of the community say, “the Man burns again,” this year on August 31, 2019.

Burning Man remains one of the most influential events in American art and culture. It is both a annual event and a cultural movement that is at once captivating and challenging across the spheres that define may of the elements of culture from the political to the economic to the poetic. It is relentless and expansive in effect.

For many people, though, the prospect of attending Burning Man is difficult – the expense and logistics of such a trip are out of reach for most people. But a new museum exhibition, hopes to remedy some of the distance.

Recently on display at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the exhibition No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man has begun a cross-country tour, with the aim of making Burning Man’s exploration of that intersection of community and art more accessible.

FoldHaus Art Collective, “Shrumen Lumen,” 2016. No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man. Photo by Ron Blunt. (Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery)

The name “No Spectators” comes from a long-standing saying at Burning Man, explains Nora Atkinson, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at the Smithsonian American Art Museums.  “You are encouraged to fully participate. It’s all about being there, being fully present, and not just observing. There are no outsiders. Everyone is part of the experience.”

The exhibition has now moved to the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). The gallery-sized immersive experience has been opening in two phases. The first phase opened on April 26, 2019. The second phase opened a few days ago on June 7.

No Spectators parallels the experience at the Smithsonian. The large-scale installations and sculptures were first brought on exhibition. These include the pieces “Shrumen Lumen” (Foldhaus), “Truth is Beauty” (Marco Cochrane), “Evotrope” (Richard Wilkes), “Paper Arch” (Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti), “Tin Pan Dragon” (Duane Flatmo), “Gamelatron” (Aaron Taylor Kuffner), “Capitol Theater” (Five Ton Crane), “Nova” (Christopher Schardt), and “Lake of Dreams” (Roy Two Thousand),

The second phase added more and varied ephemera made at or from La Playa, including eclectic couture, headdresses, and photographs, including the artist Hybycozo’s geometric shapes and light patterns and Android Jones’ intergalactic prints.

The guest curator of the CAM exhibition said “The highly imaginative art that happens in the desert is fueled by the Burning Man Community, where everyone contributes their imagination and capabilities to support radical co-creation. The Ten Principles support the notion that everyone is a radical artist, be radically involved, and radically celebrate who you are. The art that is created reflects this beautiful idea.”

Five Ton Crane Arts Collective, “Capitol Theater,” 2018. , No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man. Photo by Ron Blunt. (Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery)

Cameron Kitchin, CAM’s Louis and Louise Dieterle Nippert Director, echoed Burning Man’s impact. “It is one of the most influential movements in contemporary American art and culture,” he said. “The visual culture created in conjunction with the Burning Man gathering each year is a democratic and inclusive model of artistic expression. Working with the thinkers and artists who create the culture challenges the very notion of an art museum.”

The space at CAM is immersive, so large-scale installations surround the viewer. Its not like being on La Playa, but it offers an experience that echoes the power of each piece and the power of “burning.”  One outdoor installation was newly-created as part of the CAM exhibition. It was described as “a space that honors memory, emotion, experience and transformation” by Dr. Samantha Krukowsil of the University of Cincinnati’s School of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, who led a group of students in creating it. This is like the, now closed, installations around Washington D.C. created by the Smithsonian.

Richard Wilks, “Evotrope.” No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man. Photo by Libby Weiler. (Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery)

Consistent with Burning Man principles, the exhibition is on public display and free of charge. General admission to the Cincinnati Art Museum is also free. Support for the Cincinnati presentation of this exhibition is provided by the August A. Rendigs, Jr. Foundation.

The exhibition will close at CAM on September 2, 2019.

From there, the exhibition will travel to the Oakland Museum of California, where it will open on October 12, 2019 and continue through February 16, 2020.

For those not close to Cincinnati or Oakland, the Smithsonian is maintaining an online gallery for No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man.