A Burning Man Exhibit Is Trying to Bring the Festival out of the Desert

Truth is Beauty
Truth is Beauty | © torroid / Flickr
Elizabeth Nicholas

Burning Man is best known in popular cultural consciousness as the two-week festival held in the Nevada desert in which all money is eschewed in favor of bartering. Also, the festival encourages people to explore, climb on, and alter everything, and attendees construct elaborate art installations that are only to be burned before the festival ends (hence the name).

But a new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C. is challenging at least that last tenet. The exhibit No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man collects medium- and large-scale sculptures that have been salvaged from the desert festival and puts them on display for non-festival-goers to view for the first time.

A sculpture at Burning Man

Among the works showcased is FoldHaus’s Shrumen Lumen, which are huge origami mushrooms that light up when they detect human movement, and Richard Wilks’s EVOTROPE, a cartoonish bicycle that will give any visitor a sense for the eccentricity that pervades all elements of a Playa experience, including transportation. But the star of the show inarguably is Marco Cochrane’s Truth is Beauty, a 55-foot-tall (16.7 meters) stainless-steel geodesic mesh woman.

Truth is Beauty

Although it is doubtful that a museum show can replicate an intense and immersive experience in the desert, the questions that the show provokes in its viewers are similar to those that many Burners report having come up for them at the festival. Among these questions: What value does art have when it is detached from the potential for commercial sale and success, and why do people continue to create art in the 21st century? The show offers no concrete answers, merely extensive exhibitions from which viewers can draw their own conclusions.

Curious about the name of the exhibition? It comes from Burning Man’s philosophy that there should be “no spectators” on the Playa. Everyone who attends Burning Man is encouraged to be present in the moment, contributing to the experience for all involved rather than standing apart as a critic or a judge.

An ephemeral sculpture at Burning Man

So, for those considering making their first pilgrimage to Black Rock, those who are trying to decide if it’s right for them, or those who know there’s no way they could ever last that long without a cell phone and a proper shower, the Renwick Gallery exhibit is a perfect way to get your Burning Man fix, at least until August.

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