Burning Man Artists: Why Do They Do It?Article by: Chip Conley|@ChipConley
Sat August 31, 2013 | 00:00 AM
I overheard a slurred compliment in the desert one evening, “I wish I was talented and dumb enough to be a Burning Man artist.” I’m not sure what this drunken dude meant as he was gazing (and swaying) at one of the more technically-marvelous pieces on the Playa, “Homouroboros, Tantalus” by Peter Hudson, a kinetic sculpture that gave the illusion of watching a monkey swinging from tree to tree to catch a snake.
Talent is abundant on the Playa. And, yes, spending months conceiving a piece, raising money for it, living in the desert constructing it in harsh conditions, and then setting the artwork on fire may sound slightly idiotic. David Best, who’s built several Temples at Burning Man, told me that it cost about $140,000 to design and construct the Temple with Burning Man contributing less than half of that amount in grants. The same is true for most of Burning Man’s public artists. It’s a labor of love.
Arriving a few days early at Burning Man this year afforded me the privilege to interview four sets of artists while watching them put the finishing touches on their work before the gates officially opened to the public. I shared in my last post that Mike Garlington’s popular “Photo Chapel” was my favorite piece this year and his interview gives a sense of his inspiration for this sacred and profane site-specific piece:
“Photo Chapel” was particularly stunning at nighttime
Even Mike Garlington’s van was plastered with his mesmerizing images
In 2010, I couldn’t get enough of Marco Cochrane’s “Bliss Dance.” Three years later, he didn’t disappoint with “Truth is Beauty,” as it attracted some of the biggest crowds, day and night.
Final touches being put on “Truth is Beauty”
My interview with Marco and his wife Julia was poignant and enlightening. Marco’s work is deeply informed by the fact that women today still live in fear of being mistreated and assaulted because of their beauty and he speaks to this here…
Marco, Julia and my friend Ping Fu
The Cochranes are so committed to their cause of creating a safer world for women that they gave out 10,000 “Truth is Beauty” wristbands so that Burners could show their solidarity to women who might feel harassed on the Playa.
Beauty and safety are illuminated at night with this artwork
One of the most sublime pleasures at Burning Man is serendipity. Over and over again, I would ride my trusted bike over to an art piece that doubled as a construction site (often, dozens of tradespeople are involved in creating a sculpture) and I’d be marveling at the work when the artist would wander up to me.
“Life Cube” features the photography of Burning Man
I loved “Life Cube” artist Skeeter who looked like he’d been hit by a combination of a dust storm and serious buzz saw remnants. His zest and enthusiasm for his piece comes through here…
Featuring the work of various photographers on the Playa, Skeeter made an impassioned argument for people to write their dreams and aspirations down in order to manifest a more beautiful reality. He believes that’s the way the world becomes a better place and he even gave people the opportunity to use his artwork as a means of expressing their wishes.
Burning Man can be inspirational (it’s easy to imagine a better life while at this adult summer camp), and Skeeter’s spot had a regular stream of people dropping their dreams and aspirations directly into “Life Cube.” But it really came alive at night when the two-story art structure doubled as an outdoor disco where people were living their dreams or, in some cases, letting their amorous wishes be known. (And, if those wishes became a little too vigorous, Marco’s “Truth is Beauty” wristbands gave a clear message.)
“Life Cube” took on a decidedly different vibe at night
Finally, my sentimental favorite for the past four years has been the “Deep Playa Bijou,” a tiny movie theater built a mile and a half beyond the “Man” at the furthest, desolate reaches of Black Rock City. I love that it’s so unexpected in the middle of nowhere. Each night, they play films at midnight, 2 and 4 AM. A few years ago, I had a sweet, high school-like make-out session in the back row while watching “Metropolis.”
“Deep Playa Bijou” under construction
My affection for this mighty-mini movie house is also due to the fact I created a boutique hotel called the Bijou in downtown San Francisco which had its own eight-seat theater and played Bay Area made films nightly, just off the hotel lobby. So, I was thrilled to meet the three Gipson brothers to hear about the origins of why they created this little masterpiece dedicated to film…
As my time on the Playa was coming to an end, it seemed appropriate that my last artist interview was in the shadow of a movie theater, as two days later I’d be in Colorado at the 40th annual Telluride Film Festival. Hollywood is full of dreams and so is Burning Man. Coming a few days early to rub elbows with passionate, ingenious artists was a dream realized for me in 2013. I have a big smile on my face as I write this on my flight to Denver.
“The Women” and “Red River” were the featured films in 2012