September 05, 2003

Burning Man 2003 Art Review

A couple of days ago I came back from camping at Burning Man for the n-th time with a group of the usual extended Friendsters. It was a lot of fun, but not as artistically original as previous years. Partly I think that this year's theme—a vague nod to all-inclusive spirituality—was too difficult for people to wrap their heads around. "The Floating World," last year's theme was easier for people to visualize: it was either about Japan (the literal desert-as-ocean theme was pretty easy to grasp, and the Ukiyo-e interpretation even got some play). "Beyond Belief," although an amusing pun was hard to latch onto and too self-referential: on the one hand explicit "God stuff" is a bit icky even for the spiritually-enlightened post-hippies in the audience, on the other hand the point of the event is to make things that are beyond belief, but if the expectation is set that things are supposed to be that way, it's a lot less fun to actually make them.

Hindsight is 20/20 of course, and I'm glad they're trying different things every year (though it's amusing to see people do what they were going to do regardless of theme and then just name it so that it fits—but I guess that's true of any art show). I'm used to being completely floored by half a dozen or so pieces, but this time there were only a couple, which is still pretty damn good.

My favorites:

  • Zach Coffin's Temple of Gravity was hands down one of the most impressive things on the play, ever. The sheer magnitude was stunning and had a Jim Mason-like lunacy that was as much about the absurdity of getting something so permanent across the country to the playa for a week as it was about the beauty of the project itself. As Dan said, it's the real deal, up there with Richard Serra, Mark di Suvero and Andy Goldsworthy for monumental explorations of elements and with the 70s earth artists for the performance aspects (not to mention the business model). [9/9/03: full disclosure: a couple of days after I wrote this, I contacted Zach and I'm going to be an investor in this piece, participating in his original funding strategy for it. When I was writing this, however, I had no such plans.]
  • Frostbyte's giant version of his Shadow Engine LED wall. More than just a big display wall, its pure visual intensity was hard to beat. (though I think the algorithms generating the patterns could be a bit more subtle: when I was there everything looked like variants on the old Mac Flowfazer screen saver). [9/9/03 Kevin "Frostbyte" McCormick points me to his BM03 picture page with a bunch of pictures of Tensor the LED wall I'm referring to. He's also going to have a page that describes the Tensor piece, but it's not up yet.]
  • The Flaming Lotus Girls' Hand of God was a very nice reinterpretation of ICP technology as an actual sculpture, rather than a bunch of plumbing and a big fire (not that there's anything wrong with staying true to your medium ;-).
  • The giant U-shaped carnival ride that was a like a crazy carny's version of a home-built roller coaster. Nearly everyone who saw it in action said something along the lines of "that's fucked up", a sure sign of artistic success.

I also liked

  • Michael Christian's curvy, jungle gym/dna strand deal.
  • David Best's Temple of Honor, the latest in his series of huge, burnable temples (and, I suspect, part of the inspiration for this year's theme, since they were so successful in creating a genuine meaningful spiritual experience in previous years). I think it's great that he tried a different material and wholly different approach, but the intricacy of the previous temples was really instrumental in their effectiveness as, whereas this one—maybe because the intricacy was created by print on paper, rather than wood filigree—seemed too, uh, simple.
  • The big chandelier. On the one hand, it was clearly Claes Oldenberg inspired because it was a giant common thing that told a story (Courtney pointed out that it wasn't merely a giant chandelier, it was a giant chandelier that had fallen out of the sky as if the sky was a tenement ceiling we were mice). But it was a good story and it was very well executed, so it was nice to see.
  • Scott Kildall's Pyrocycles, which were cute and, from a distance, excellently mysterious. Molly and I saw them and it took me a good half-mile bike ride to figure out what they were, other than just moving, swerving fire plumes.

(fyi, since I don't know the names of all the artists and the works, feel free to comment with the names, or drop me a note, and I'll update this page appropriately—I mean no disrespect by not naming people or their work)

In the end, I'm as always glad I went and I feel like a scrooge for saying bad things about the event, but I do feel like the event—for whatever reason—did not attract as much great art as it has in the past. This is especially sad because it was treated as a goofball hippie event by the art establishment when it was actually quite serious; now that it's getting respectability, it's loosing the edge and quality it had and risks becoming a goofball hippie event. I hope they figure out how to avoid that. (on that note, there's a hilarious Craig's List post by a disillusioned idealist, which makes several good points).

Posted by mikek at September 5, 2003 06:12 PM

Hey there. I saw your link to my page regarding Shadow Engine and my new wall of LEDs this year, which is called Tensor. I'll eventually have a page for Tensor at but for now I have plenty of good pictures of my whole Burning Man 2003 trip at .

Thanks for your compliments!

Posted by: Kevin "Frostbyte" McCormick at September 8, 2003 10:50 AM

Thanks! I've updated it in the main entry.

Posted by: Mike at September 9, 2003 11:42 PM

Mike, what is even more impressive about the roller coaster is that the Snowflake Villagers that built it are from our own hometown of Detroit, which makes getting it to the playa logistically all that much more impressive. This was its second year there, but its first in a well deserved spot on the Esplanade.

The flame thrower that appeared to shoot through the structure between passes of the car (though was actually in front, and not a danger) was an especially nice touch.

Posted by: Ray Koltys at September 10, 2003 01:25 PM
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