Burning Man

Desert Art Out on the Playa 2007

photos and article by Kristine Bonner

Big Rig Jig by Mike RossEvery year around Labor Day Burning Man takes place in the desolate Black Rock Desert in Nevada. This coming together of burners, as attendees of the event are known, is an extravaganza of art, music, and self-expression that draws thousands to an isolated, acrid, alkiline desert. A feat of planning in most years, 2007's Burning Man event had even more challenges than usual. By August 28th, the night of a total eclipse of the moon visible from the Black Rock Desert, at 2:58 am the man was set afire prematurely. The arsonist was eventually caught, his painted face appearing in his booking photo in the Reno Gazette. The man though, had to be rebuilt in time for the official burn four days later. The event drew a record 47,000 people, a large number to pass through the small communities of Empire and Gerlach, who are gracious hosts to the passage of the curious tribe across their highways, and through their general stores and gas stations.

The most amazing feature of the event is the interaction of art and the desert itself. You can walk or bike far, far out into the playa, the dusty basin of the ancient lake that once filled this desert place.

Out there on the playa, away from the arcing grid of cars, tents, motor homes, DJs and most of 2007's denizens of Black Rock City, lies a kind of faerie wasteland of art -- a combination of brutal temperatures, alkali dust and images. The constant movement of bicycles to and fro across this vast expanse provides a visual counterpoint of turning wheels large and small, and bodies in motion.

Dust masks and goggles are essential. The wind whips alkaline dust into its own display, creating fierce towers of fast-moving silt called whiteouts. Whiteouts can last for a few moments, or several hours. The visible edge of the playa begins to blur and the wind whips up, carrying dust in its wake. At first it's exhilarating -- then you feel your skin is getting a free microdermabrasion, and pull up the dust mask and consider a race for shelter.

Whiteout on the Playa

Art CarThe art pieces endure these wind storms, the intense heat, and the scrutiny of the curious cyclists and intrepid trekkers who venture out on foot. Also part of this curious parade are an assortment of vehicles called art cars which must be pre-approved by the Burning Man management prior to their entry on the scene. Ranging from unlikely, inspired assemblages of decor atop golf carts to fabulous creations such as a grinning cheshire cat, a sailing ship, and a three-story Victorian mansion (Neverwas Haul & Grand Steam Expedition by Neverwas Haul), these vehicles drift across the playa like floating mirages.

As you navigate the playa you come across art pieces seemingly sprung from the dust, unlikely structures of the imagination, yours, and the creator's.

Park Bench Waits for Travelers

A park bench heralded by flying red flags, with its own lamppost, edged by a flower bed wire border provides a welcome respite to the weary traveler.

Carousel of Monkeys

A carousel of man-like monkeys hangs high above the viewer, a cipher for passers-by.

Lone Chair and Tree

The skeletons of a lone chair and its partner, a dead tree, way, way out by the orange web that delineates the edge of Black Rock City intimates perhaps that without the "green" (this year's theme was the Green Man) in our lives, we ourselves would disappear, leaving only the artifacts of our lives.

Colored Balls Sculpture

A fun assemblage of colored balls waves and bounces in the playa gusts.

Koilos by Michael Christian

Crouching, a detailed silver being seems to have had its head blown out by whiteouts. (Koilos by Michael Christian)

Tasseograph: The Trash TeaHouse Temple by Shrine and TukTuk

An intricate and colorful art deco/Chinese teahouse structure invites you in to observe fantastic spiral mobiles. Clear panels covered with delicate arching designs create the open walls. (Tasseograph: The Trash TeaHouse Temple by Shrine and TukTuk)


Big Rig Jig by Mike Ross

The fantastic site of two semitrucks impossibly entwined, one seemingly floating in air, looms large as you approach. Yes, they really are that big. (Big Rig Jig by Mike Ross)

Carefully placed sticks in a ritualistic pattern, a giant face yawning or crying out, tatters of fabric waving in the dusty wind, and an exit door from a psychiatric hospital are also waiting for encounters on the playa. Giant swingsets recreate feelings of childhood in the viewers and those inspired to swing on them.

One of the most fantastic art pieces is the Temple of Forgiveness by David Best and Tim Dawson. It gradually materializes, a zen temple floating in white alkali. It is surrounded by scattered piles of bikes whose owners are inside, reading, writing or posting pictures of loved ones now gone. Notes asking for forgiveness, expressions of love, loss, and memories are written on pieces of wood or bits of paper everywhere. It is profoundly moving. Every bit of the construction is intricately carved, a work of dedication whose purpose is immolation along with all the missives inside. On the night after the man burns, the Temple is burned, sending its messages and its structure into flame, and then smoke. Burning Man is over -- until next year.

Temple of Forgiveness by David Best and Tim Dawson

We'd like to credit all the artists whose works we show here. If you know the artist's names, and titles of the pieces that we are missing, please email feedback. Thanks


Today's Desert Artists
Ancient Artists of the Desert


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