Andrew Johnstone “The Man” (2016). Photo by Laura Henkel
Paint This Desert invites Laura Henkel to share her Burning Man experience. She returns to Las Vegas with this reflection and images of sculptures from the 2016 gathering at Black Rock City.
By Laura Henkel
Whether you have been to Burning Man or not it represents a variety of ideas and meanings. And for those who have not gone it is difficult to articulate what is Burning Man without sounding like you are from a utopian cult. Each attendee is a unique variable of people and place in constant flux. This randomness is what makes Burning Man a magical place on the playa.
In the high desert everyone is equal. It does not matter if you are sleeping under the stars, in a tent or in an RV. The weather is extreme. It can be incredibly cold, unbearably hot, or pour so much rain that it literally stops everyone and everything in its tracks. The dust storms are so intense that you can’t see your own hands in front of you. You prepare for all those extreme weather conditions and every weather condition in between.
And if you are not prepared, no worries. “The playa provides.” It always does.
Your camping compadres or a complete stranger will make sure that you are okay. Don’t be surprised if someone literally gives the clothing off their back.
I have been fortunate to experience glorious weather with the occasional aforementioned hardships. But those temporary hardships are part of the fun that allows every fiber of your being to be engaged. There is an instinctual empowerment when you can commune with nature succinctly.
Laurence Vallières “Seeing Humanity For What It Really Is” (2016). Photo by Laura Henkel
Knowing that you will be in the middle of nowhere, you pack enough food and liquids to sustain you. The key is to remain nourished and to stay hydrated because you are constantly on the move. It doesn’t matter if you are walking, riding a bike, cruising on art cars or dancing the night away. You are go, go, go.
And yet again, “the playa provides.” Sharing food and drink is the most basic act of human kindness. When you are stripped down to the basic elements for survival, you are incredibly grateful when someone invites you to partake in a cup of tea, a green smoothie, crispy bacon, pancakes and mimosas, fresh cut fruit, and the most sublime and random yummies that you could ever imagine graciously shared in the middle of nowhere. When you engage 70,000 people in the act of breaking bread, kindness is amplified. You can’t help but want to give back in some way and it doesn’t matter to whom.
Erin Ries “Shack to Hell U Ride” Art Car (2016). Photo Laura Henkel
I find that Burning Man begins the moment I get in my car to drive to the event. I have stopped along the way to experience obscure towns and meet indigenous folk. There have been times that I have been stuck on the same two-lane highway for six hours, no bathroom in sight, with hundreds of cars in the same predicament only to get out of our vehicles and bond with each other.
When I am at the event, I am there to discover. I may volunteer to be at a particular place at a particular time, but for the most part, I set a loose daily itinerary because so much randomness can happen between Point A to Point B. I am completely in awe of the mecca of creativity by my fellow man. Yes, I have heard of the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World and I have experienced a few of the Modern Wonders, but hell, Burning Man is a moment in the now. It is one those enlightening moments whereby I am so proud to call myself a homosapien. I see so much ugliness in the world on a daily basis caused by mankind: hurting each other, destroying our surroundings, conquering all. At Burning Man, I experience only the best of our species and each time I go, I realize that Burning Man not only attracts the best, it promotes our best.
Granted, you might run into the occasional jerk. They could be tripping, they could be purging emotional baggage, but for whatever reason, we are better equipped to disengage and disarm those rare moments. Everyone is present to each other in the nicest possible manner. As it is impossible to experience every thing at Burning Man since it is so massive in scope, it is possible to have the exact experience that you created for yourself. The journey is what ever you want it to be.
As a curator, I appreciate the dedication, the execution and the management of each individual work of art as it relates to the environment. Regardless of size or technical complexity, each installation is accessible 24/7 and must be able to withstand the elements, as well as human interaction. The art installations, the art cars and even the fashion creates a myriad of visual delights. I am so impressed by the placement of art throughout the event combined with the continuous movement of people day and night that I know I am part of a surreal landscape whereby everyone contributes to a living masterpiece.
There are grumblings of how Burning Man has changed. How it used to be in the early years or that it is now too commercial. I was curious and did some research. I found an ABC Nightline Investigation from 1997 about the event. It looked wild. Organizers scrambled to keep the event financially afloat, and remain true to not wanting to commercialize the event. From what I have discovered and experienced I appreciate the organic evolution of Burning Man. I appreciate the organization’s infrastructure that provides a base for participants to spring from. There is a big difference between a few thousand attendees to 70,000 attendees. While I have an idea what is involved to produce such an event, I also know I am clueless. I do know I am thankful to attendees from all over the world and all walks of life to share their independent and collective contributions.
As of today I have been to Burning Man nine times over a twelve-year span. I was gifted my first ticket and probably would have never attended if I hadn’t been given that ticket, and because of that I feel it is important that I gift others to experience Burning Man for the first time. I have had the honor to gift five people. And each time, “the playa provides.” They have returned with new people.
So when I am unpacking from my Burning Man experience in my creature comfort world, I am hesitant to remove the dust from my belongings because I am reminded of what the dust represents and symbolizes. If you are someone who has not been to Burning Man, I hope you make your way to the Playa someday. It is an experience to be experienced.
Big Imagination Foundation “The 747 Project” (2016). Photo Laura Henkel
Kate Raudenbush “Helios” (2016). Photo Laura Henkel
Guiseppe Palumbo “Spinal Power” (2016). Photo Laura Henkel
Arthur Mamou-Mani “Tangential Dreams” (2016). Photo Laura Henkel
Jack Champions “Jack Champions Murder” (2016). Photo Laura Henkel
Above: Stephen Hendee created sculpture for the celebration of 30 years of public art programming in the City of Las Vegas.