“Burning Man”

These giant folded-paper “mushrooms” grow (and shrink) when spectators step on a switch. (All photos copyright © Sandra Kelley-Daniel 2018)

This past week Sandra and I were visiting our son Adam and his family in the Washington, D.C., area. Last Sunday we all went to the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery where we enjoyed a remarkable exhibit, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man.” The exhibit squeezed an entire desert art happening into the Renwick’s boutique museum space, just a block from the White House.

For readers unfamiliar with this remarkable phenomenon, Burning Man is an annual gathering of an astonishingly disparate collection of artists, tinkerers, performers, dreamers and seekers – tens of thousands of them. They have been meeting in an empty quarter of Nevada every summer since 1990. In their weeklong gathering, a seven-square-mile virtual city springs up almost overnight and gives birth to a breathtaking assemblage of art installations, many of which are designed to move about the scorching desert floor. At the end of the festival, the gargantuan wooden “Man” at the center of the proceedings is burned. The next day, the site is swept clean and returned to its previous still, silent, empty state. For a much better (and more entertaining) idea of Burning Man, I suggest you read an article I edited several years ago for Marin Medicine magazine. Its author, California physician Mark Taylor, has attended a dozen Burning Man events.

While to some observers, Burning Man may appear to be just an excuse for hippies, pot enthusiasts, spiritual pilgrims and performance artists to stage a bacchanal, seeing a condensed representation of some of the art to which these events give birth was, for me, a revelation. Not just of some eye-popping art, but also of the tremendously innovative ferment out of which the art bubbles. The exhibit told me that America’s innovative spirit – the same spirit that gave birth to phenomena such as flight, biotechnology, the digital revolution and artificial intelligence among much else – is not only alive and well, but exploding in unimagined new directions.

If, like me, you find yourself greatly distressed by the daily dose of disheartening news about our country’s divisive politics, fraying social fabric and unresolved economic problems, you may find renewed hope in the creative ferment that is at the heart of Burning Man. The same spirit that took us to the moon is clearly continuing to effervesce in thousands of minds throughout the land. It gives me – in many ways a pessimist – hope for America’s future.

Below: Several of Burning Man’s “Ten Principles”

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