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Burning Man Fires Up the Oakland Museum

Gargantuan project from Smithsonian showcases the art and ethos of the venerable desert assembly.

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If you've always been curious about Burning Man, but lacked the time, money, or commitment to make the pilgrimage (or the willingness to undergo the rigors of camp life in the Nevada desert), then No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, at the Oakland Museum, is not to be missed. A gargantuan project initiated by the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery in 2018, the show comes to the Bay Area, its birthplace and spiritual home, after a four-month stop at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

But while Burning Man is headquartered in San Francisco's Mission District, the phenomenon, as Oakland Museum Curator Peggy Monahan points out, is not strictly regional; there are regional organizations around the world that stay in contact throughout the year. One of the most active of these is the East Bay contingent, some of whose members have been assisting the artists and the museum's preparators in the massive six-week installation process.

In Radical Ritual, Neil Shister recounts the origin and the changing ethos of Burning Man in the mid-1980s in San Francisco: "The Bay Area — port of call to whalers and goldrushers, communist longshoremen and vanguard gay activists — breeds more eccentricity pound-for-pound than anywhere else in America. Personal re-invention is in the water. ... The magical mystery tour of the counterculture '60s was about to combine with the digital wizardry taking form down the peninsula in Silicon Valley. These two back doors slammed into each other like particles in a cyclotron."

In 1986, Larry Harvey, described by Shister as "an unemployed landscaper" — albeit an erudite one: his company was named Paradise Regained — decided to build a makeshift structure of wood and burn it at Baker Beach, facing the Golden Gate Bridge, in order to exorcise a relationship gone bad. The bonfire (which recalls symbolic immolations in folk culture) became an annual ritual that terminated only when the Golden Gate Park police decided it was getting too dangerous and denied Harvey a permit. Harvey and his five aesthetic and adventure partners, influenced by various avant-garde radical performance/participation groups of the time — i.e., the Suicide Club, the Situationists, the Cacophony Society (motto: "Leave the world a weirder place.") — moved Burning Man in 1990 to the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, near Reno, a playa, or dry lake basin previously used previously only for WW2 aerial gunnery exercises and a successful 768 mph land speed record attempt in a jet-engine-powered car. After the local gypsum-sheetrock mining operation went bust, the abandoned playa was used for crazy-fast driving in monster trucks and detonating recreational explosives. Paradise, for radical individualists, Regained.

Over the years, Burning Man has become an institution, far exceeding whatever expectations of its six Founders, enumerated by Shister: "an unemployed landscaper (Larry Harvey); an art model, (Crimson Rose); a struggling photographer (Will Roger Peterson); an aerobics instructor, (Harley K. Dubois); a sign maker (Michael Mikel); and a dot-com PR gal (Marion Goodell)." Burning Man suffered some growing pains as the number of participants grew, year after year, now numbering some seventy-five thousand; the original cooperative structure, something like a group marriage or mind-meld of six people whose talents were fortuitously complementary, evolved into a more corporate though nonprofit structure with a multimillion-dollar budget and a permanent staff of more than 100. It has even become, sniff some purists, a victim of success-excess, with high-tech firms that have embraced the spirit of no-limits creativity occupying posh private quarters.

The exuberant spirit of Burning Man, as paradoxically anarchic and communitarian as any heretical sect of medieval Europe, is gloriously on display at the museum, free of the alkali dust that marks the cars of Burners returned to Bay Area normalcy. Included are works created and shown at Burning Man as well as some new works made for the Smithsonian exhibition, including a forty-foot-tall temple by Petaluma sculptor David Best, only the latest of several memorable spaces that he has made, adorned with DBS, Decorative Bullshit (a subversively positive term). An exhibit prepared by the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, City of Dust: The Evolution of Burning Man, will trace the festival's countercultural, avant-garde and utopian roots, with its Ten Principles (Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy) visually embodied in Scott Froschauer's playa-signpost photo of 2017.

Artworks in the exhibition embrace both analogue and digital technology. Duane Flatmo's "Tin Pan Dragon" is a Viking ship on wheels, operated by the pedaling of its driver; Richard Wilks's "Evotrope" is a bicycle-wheeled zoetrope with a large disk of open and closed eyes that is rotated by hand-cranking, and magically illuminated and animated by strobe light; "Paper Arch" by Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti is a large Roman-style triumphal arch that has burst into flames of collages imagery, with everything constructed of paper; Laura Kimpton's "Burn the Ego Medallion" reprises the combustion of her giant wooden sculpture of the word EGO on the playa in 2013. Employing state-of-the-art tech is "Deep Thought" — an environment of laser-cut polygons that are internally lighted, casting intricate shadows on surrounding walls — by Yelena Filipchuk and Serge Beaulieu. "Shrumen Lumen" by the Foldhaus designer/maker collective, led by Joerg Student and Jesse Silver, is an interactive installation of origami-inspired mushrooms that are illuminated by colored LED lights activated by viewers, and change shape, seeming to breathe.

With gentrification-raised doubts about the future of the creative community in the Bay Area, this exhibition, which features many local artists, is a celebration of the individualism that we hold so dear in Babylon by the Bay (to employ Herb Caen's affectionate sobriquet for frisky, weird, tolerant San Francisco). "'No Spectators' is a long-standing saying on Playa," said Smithsonian curator Nora Atkinson. "You are encouraged to fully participate. It's all about being there, being fully present, and not just observing. Two of the ten principles of Burning Man are radical participation and radical inclusivity, meaning that there are no outsiders. Everyone is part of the experience." 

Oct. 12-Feb. 16, 2020, hours vary, $12-21, Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland, MuseumCA.org, 510-318-8400.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally misnamed the creators of “Paper Arch;” they were Natalia Bertotti and Michael Garlington.

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