Alan attaching the first wish to the Fire Bird
2011 was my fifth year of attending Burning Man, a temporary city of over 50,000 in the middle of the harsh environment of the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Burning Man means many things to many people. Some see it as an opportunity to cut loose from the norms of society and party their naked asses off. That’s not why I go.
For me Burning Man is a place for art and community. It is an amazing blank canvas surrounded by sky. People work so very hard in tremendously difficult conditions to give their art to the community for just one week. Much of it is burned at the end of that time. The effort and beauty are awe inspiring, even if a piece doesn’t completely work.
This year’s Fire Bird was my third attempt at bringing art to Black Rock City. The first two didn’t really work. Stone, metal, wood, and fire are all mediums that translate well to the playa, fabric not so much. Strong winds and the ever present fine alkaline dust create challenges. Every time I think I have it figured out I am reminded not so gently that, no, I don’t have it figured out quite yet.
getting ready for installation
Lesson one: nothing ever happens at Burning Man quite the way you planned it. Installation was relatively easy given that upon arrival I was told that my space wouldn’t be ready until 8pm and that we had to be out of Center Camp by 8pm because there was a private party there. A head scratcher for sure. It all worked out with my trusty assistants, Alan and Corey, there to help. Some quick edits, some additional structure, and some flexibility and we got it done. It really looked great.
Lesson two: everything instantly gets covered with playa dust. This actually didn’t bother me at all. It felt as if the piece became a part of the playa although I could have skipped the step of dyeing the reed.
covered in dust
Lesson three: Burning Man is really distracting. Duh. Although some people got the idea and added to the effigy on their own, it was much more active when there was someone there to tell them about it. I found this difficult to do but Cat, my wonderful campmate, spent time there encouraging people to interact with it. It was lovely to see people get the idea and witness their interactions.
Lesson four: carrying a really long piece of unlit fabric in the dark with people zooming around (high) on bikes isn’t a good idea. Duh again. Luckily Alan and Corey thought this one through before I did and we kept the fabric short while carrying the effigy and fabric to the fire.
Lesson five: trying to get people who are tripping at the remains of the Man fire to move and/or hold a long piece of fabric is very difficult.
Lesson six: as an artist I am merely creating a space or structure where an audience can choose to participate by attaching their own meaning. In this case, I was honored to get to witness this.
Lesson seven and the most important: I can’t do this alone. Although the concept was mine, many hands, hearts, and minds touched the Fire Bird to make it what it was.
In some ways the installation fell short of my expectations. I wished for higher participation. And I really wanted to see that 150 foot long piece of fabric carried out the fire in a solemn procession. If I choose to make art for Burning Man again I want to site it on the playa itself. I think that I’ve learned enough now that I could do that. Successfully? I don’t know.
I can’t thank Rumor Camp enough for their embrace of this project. It still would have been pretty and we still would have burned it, but without the pre-ritual that Rabbit led in our camp and the intention that we seven camp mates put into it, it wouldn’t have had the depth of meaning that it came to have for me. I was touched beyond measure. The eight necklaces that Alan made, one for each camp mate and one that hung in the Fire Bird, gave us each a token to hold on to that is imbued with the meaning of the project. I’m wearing mine now.
The installation far exceeded my expectations in the meaning it had for me. Seeing people interact with it genuinely and hearing what it meant to my camp mates made it truly represent a Rite of Passage. It was personal.
And the Burn itself? It was powerful. Asking people nicely, yet firmly, to please clear a path and hold the fabric. Standing at the edge of that powerful heat and making the decision to walk into it with Rabbit and put the Fire Bird into the embers. Watching the Fire Bird catch and then be consumed by the flames. Feeling that intense heat be absorbed into my core self. Collecting the fabric back from those holding it and being thanked and hugged by those who had witnessed the Transformation. I can still feel all that.
Yeah, it was powerful.
into the embers
transformed into heat and ash