Every year for one week, bold, super-sized works of art spring to life in one of the harshest yet most starkly beautiful settings imaginable… the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. With hundreds of original works, performances, and theme camps spanning five square miles, and more than 60,000 attendees, Burning Man has become North America’s largest outdoor art festival. At the core of the Burning Man art aesthetic is participation and interactivity. Many pieces involve community volunteers who put in hundreds of hours on elaborate large-scale works that are meant to be touched — and often torched. The vast majority of the monumental metal sculptures are made in the Bay Area, the place where Burning Man got its start in 1986.

The Boxshop, in San Francisco’s India Basin, is home to the Flaming Lotus Girls, a female-driven team of artists who pushed themselves to the limit to create Xylophage, a giant tree stump with larger-than-life fire-breathing fungi, for this year’s event. The Flaming Lotus Girls up the ante for viewer participation each year, creating immersive environments where spectators control the flame and sound effects.

The Flaming Lotus Girls, Xylophage, Burning Man 2013.
The Flaming Lotus Girls, Xylophage, Burning Man 2013. (Neil Girling)

The influence of the Burning Man art scene is spreading beyond the desert playa. Over the past decade iconic sculptures have found new homes in urban settings, and major civic installations by former “burners” like Leo Villareal (The Bay Lights) are gaining critical and popular acclaim.

One of the forces behind this trend is the Black Rock Arts Foundation, whose mission is supporting community-driven interactive projects with a Burning Man aesthetic. As long-time “burner” and Black Rock Arts Foundation Executive Director Tomas McCabe puts it, “Art that’s meant to be interacted with is much more interesting. It’s an interesting dynamic; it’s really fun and it’s a little bit foreign in this world of museums and caution tape and don’t touch. And it’s kind of magical to be able to be invited to interact with something. So we wanted to bring that magic back.”

Burning Man Art Beyond the Playa 2 April,2014Lori Halloran

  • burnersarentartists

    “Art that’s meant to be interacted with is much more interesting” only when one hasn’t been taught, or hasn’t bothered to learn, the language of visual art. The poetry and history of visual art isn’t on the surface. Visual art is however actually much more interesting and there’s much more to them than this stuff which is for the most part trip-art made big.

    Just because those mushrooms are huge doesn’t make them an Oldenburg.

    Actual fine museum art might be difficult (the actual problem that leads people to say it’s “boring”), but that doesn’t mean that obviousness in the manner of a flamethrower is the solution.

    Flamethrowers, or metal 3D illustrations with flamethrowers stuck on, really aren’t that interesting. They’re an enactment of childish ideas about what a really cool toy might be, nothing more.

    • Peter Hudson

      wow. some very bold and definitive statements. ‘ the language of visual art” is just that. it’s own language. it cannot be taught or learned. it can only be understood and interpreted by each individual person who comes in contact with it. to narrowly define visual art negates the immediacy and intimacy of individual experience.
      to reduce the experience of art to an erudite elitism is what burning man frees us from.

    • LadyBee

      Have you been to the event? Have you seen BigRigJig? David Best’s temples? Michael Christian’s metal installations? Peter Hudson’s zoetropes? Do a little research and you’ll find that many Burning Man artists have art degrees, long careers, and interesting bodies of work with meaning and content. There’s way more going on out there than flamethrowers…..and let’s be thankful that contemporary art encompasses so much more than what is canonized in art museums.

    • drdeb

      troll that has not been to the burn

    • jrusoff

      I agree that much of the flame effects at Burning Man are just cheap thrills. But I really think you are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Please go walk around Bliss Dance on Angel Island and see if it doesn’t seem extraordinarlly beautiful. I also thought the Photo Chapel was a a “difficult” piece that really took time and thought to decypher. It was haunting and beautiful at the same time. I wish I had more time to go back to it and ponder more of the puzzle. There were,and alway are, a number of extremely beautiful, puzzling and extraordinarily crafted pieces at Burning Man. You owe it to yourself to see it in person.

    • artemis6

      It is an interesting thought to limit “art” as purely visual . Is there not art in how a thing sounds or smells or feels ? To express something in ANY art is merely to bring its focus to a fine edge and make a point . Why must it be limited to just one sense ? Why must it be limited to one kind of experience ? Why on Earth should it be limited by one opinion ?

    • Monty2232

      Sounds to me like some bitter little boy got turned down for a BM art grant because his own work is garbage…..

  • Kevin Mathieu

    For Burnersarenotartist I do not accept your argument in the least. I wonder why you did not bother with your real name in your critique. Do please stand behind your words with your name, or I think you deserve to be ignored as troll.

    It seems you have not actually been to black rock to enjoy the art works up close and your language seems to be limited to a certain perspective of what is art. A view of art that I do not see as commercially or academically viable or legitimate in this day and time.

    Art that is out at Black Rock is far more then ” They’re an enactment of childish ideas about what a really cool toy might be, nothing more.” Not 100% of the time, but a significant amount of the time That is what happens when you open up a space for all to create. Some call it a DIY and democracy of art.

    There are flame arts that are complicated challenges of imagination, technology, and skill such as Ardents Dance Dance Immolation, or a new Seattles groups new work I just saw this year thats name I do not recall.

    I would say in fact that you likely in a terrible position to critique or demonstrate not having seen the FLG artwork “Xylophage” up close or in person.

    As I have and did last week.

    In action – as well as in daylight – which is the biggest challenge and crux of any flame effect enhanced artwork. Naturally some works are limited to a particular environment and atmosphere as is true for James Turrell ( His stuff does not work as art- just like most paintings or picasso’s – in the dark) or Jim Campbell.

    Jim Campell has personally told me about the challenge of art works that are stretched beyond their space to work as intended by not being in the right environment ( too many people attempting to see it or getting too close or not dark enough).

    The wood stump by Flaming Lotus Girls had incredible detail though out and in the gorgeous and well executed hand painted faux wood by Robin Hoodlum on the metal sheets, that was art by itself. I say that with no doubt in mind.

    Here is a gorgeous image of the artworks interior that was seen in Rolling Stone


    Here is an image – fairly flat and dusty image of the wood painting that did not do justice to the work, quality, or scale:

    The stump art work did not have flamethrowers, it had lighting provided by propane. FLG is known for poofers ( which is what the Mushrooms had shooting down), which are actually quite a bit different then flamethrowers in both a legal and practical sense.

    As a professional artist with practice and work with Mark Pauline and the internationally recognized group Survival Research Laboratories ( SRL.org) , as well as a consultant to the State of California Fire Marshall’s office on Flame Effects I believe I’m in a position to know about whither flame effects can make art or not.
    I have seen lots of it for 18 years both in the US and internationally, up close.

    All three of the named modern artists I speak of are recognized in various MOMA’s across the world. Having worked with several of them and many others such as Kal Spellitch, I suspect I have more legit grounds for validating art, as is commonly held in the real world of what is seen as art and what is not.

    There is art at Black Rock, some with flame throwers and some flame effects in fact. Beyond that I personally think art should have a chance to amaze, entertain. amuse, and make happy the viewer, as well as evoke other thoughts and emotions. Childish emotions and fun should not be prevented from qualifying as art, if so then what to make of Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, or even Prescott Carlson with Cloud Gate aka the Bean?

    I’ve seen significant art and artworks out at Black Rock ( as well as janky ones) in the interactive as well as simple visual and traditional aesthetic by many from 1995 to now, made by the famous and credentialed with MFA’s to the common people.
    There should never be a requirement for art to be interpreted and limited by those lucky enough to be better educated on the fineries via higher education as you imply that such a gate keeper as yourself should be acting as. Even those with MFA’s do find art out there, as well as create it.

    Superb art works speak for themselves in the details, and there are many such art works at Black Rock that have and continue to do so – with or without flame throwers and flame effects. Go out there some year and see for yourself and then learn and share.
    Perhaps better yet – go help build something and really doing some learning and growth that will be good for all.

  • LadyBee

    Leo Villareal is not a “former Burner” – he’s been going each year since 1994 and was out there this year, as always, with his theme camp Disorient. Leo once told me that no matter how busy he gets, he’ll never miss Burning Man, as it’s his think tank in the desert. He was initially inspired to create light art by the darkness of the playa, with no reference points. Now the city is full of cutting edge light installations, and is a great place to experiment with new light technologies.

  • Allegra

    I’ve spent almost 7 years studying art, including 2 years in an academy in Europe, and have a bachelors degree in art. I’ve been to numerous museums all over the world and I’ve also been to burning man the past 7 years. In my subjective opinion (the only kind), some of the best art I’ve experienced has been at burning man, and is in fact, my favorite part of burning man. Just because there is a lot of other stuff happening among the 68,000 people, doesn’t diminish the amazing art that does show up out there.

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