Burning Man 2008. A great deal of personal effort this year was expended towards making this once-in-a-lifetime trek out to Nevada. Although this was my first visit to the playa, I went with Burning Man veteran Brandie Bond, fellow photographer and fire dancer. This trip would be special because Brandie’s close affiliation with the Burning Man in-crowd and scheduled pre-burn fire perfomance (which was sadly canceled due to dust storms) would give me up-front access. We wanted to experience the melting pot of art and art culture amongst the radically self-expressive and the REALLY alternative-minded. As you can imagine, the sights and sounds and experiences of the Burning Man art festival is ripe with a plethora of photo opportunities—and two photographers with the dust under their feet and cameras in hand can easily exhaust themselves in the over-100º heat trying to capture every nuance.
One of the familiar pieces that Brandie had seen before made it back this year—the Bone Tree, by Dana Albany. The craftsmanship of this 30-foot-tall tree made of—well…bones—is superb. Last year, it was positioned around the Man amongst a collection of art trees (the theme was Green Man) and the assumption had been that it’d been built specifically for that theme…it certainly fit. However, a little research shows that the sculpture has been alive and well since about 1999 on the playa…and still going strong. Hauntingly beautiful—and right at home amongst the barren expanse of dry lakebed, it was a sight to behold.
Center Camp proved to be a treat with its constant buzz of activity. Coffee was available for those unable to function without, and art was hung/displayed around the entire perimeter. During the day, this is where most of the action was happening. Performances happened on one of three stages within the vast tent-like structure and often there was performance art (dance, poi, aerial) happening in the center. We happened to stumble across a group of aerial fabric dancers one of the days that we were out and about.
When we ventured out onto the Esplanade at dusk, the art cars would light up and cruise between the many fabulous art pieces set out in the deep playa. In the dark, these mutant vehicles resembled huge, brightly-colored ships floating on a calm ocean. I developed an obsession with a rather nondescript art car that would roll past our camp several times a day. It was built on the framework of an old ice cream truck and topped with a rotating Christmas tree made of lights. It may have been plain…but it made an impact. That may, of course, have been partly due to the killer sound system it was outfitted with. The light-tree pulsed in computer-controlled synchronization to the eerie techno music blaring from the vehicle.
Dusk is also when the really interesting characters would start to come out of the woodwork. Always colorful and very often unusual, the folks taking part in the event were charming to talk to. Many are working artists. Others come to see art. Some just come for the party, but rarely does anyone walk away from this festival unaffected by the experience.
One of the most powerful experiences to be had in Black Rock City involves visiting the temple. Profound is the only word that can be used to describe Basura Sagrada, or “Sacred Trash.” It was built from recycled and cast-off materials—literally, trash—by Shrine, Tucker Teutsch and the citizens of Black Rock City. For years, David Best and crew have built the city’s Temple. They’ve always been gorgeous constructions of art that have housed a lot of energy—a non-judgmental place of hope, joy and remembrance for Black Rock. This year, Best turned over the construction of the temple to a new crew and they outdid themselves in grand style. Basura Sagrada was simply breathtaking. It had been open to visit for a scant two days the first time we saw it, and by then the walls and pillars were already covered with hand-written prayers and messages to lost loved ones, all to go up in smoke when the temple burned to the ground the last day of the festival, sending the hopes and dreams of thousands of people skyward on plumes of flame.
We made the pilgrimage to the temple twice—once, to leave our own thoughts and memories of loved ones who were deep in our hearts and minds. The other time was on Sunday night to watch it burn.
Burning Man becomes a place of both the individual as well as the collective. Oftentimes you’ll see the odd person sitting/standing/dancing/praying or doing whatever off on their own. It’s that sense of individuality that really brings home that however huge the event itself maybe, it’s comprised of 50,000 other points of light that illuminate the whole…together. Sitting amongst the people poised in quiet anticipation of the burning of Basura Sagrada, it was easy to appreciate the individual spirit in each person that brought them to this moment in time.
Regardless of the massive scale, the experiences and life lessons that we came away with all resounded on a personal level. Fire is a powerful element of transformation—and watching the Man burn as well as watching the temple fade to ashes reminded us of how important it is to continue to give our artistic selves purpose and meaning.
It also, on many levels, reminded us of our own humanity, of our own searches for meaning, for truth and for beauty. Even now, words fail to describe the event. Scrolling through our hundreds of pictures, we often wax nostalgic for that smell of dust and the feeling of coming home.