Features

Burned out

National | Burning Man art party turns out to be more meaningless than offensive, irrelevant than irreverent

Issue: "The fall(en) TV season," Sept. 18, 1999

in Nevada - Summer solstice celebrations, eat your heart out! The hot new event of American paganism is Burning Man, an annual weeklong apocalyptic festival that ended on Labor Day weekend. It drew more than 24,000 people into the Nevada desert and reporters from as far away as London, England. This is not the serious intellectual paganism that Augustine labored to refute nearly 1,600 years ago in his masterpiece, The City of God. A lot of Burning Man-named for the neo-pagan ritual of burning a big wooden man-is about sex. Typical events included a daily drag race (men in dresses racing bicycles), the Saturday morning Massive Nude Photograph (thousands gathered and, well, lay around naked together while various photographers shot them), and the Friday afternoon Critical Bike Ride (hundreds of topless women rode in a circle around cheering spectators). The pop paganism evident at Burning Man has a dark, druidic pedigree (see the 1973 movie, The Wicker Man, about modern-day pagans who roast a policeman inside a similar towering structure). But the drug-addled Larry Harvey, who began Burning Man on a California beach 13 years ago, has only a vague idea of what it's about. "It's an outgrowth of the San Francisco bohemian scene," he told the press. "It's about sacred space, space to be an artist." Besides the Burning Man himself, the most photographed work of art at the festival was "Nebulous Entity," a towering tree made of animal bones (deer antlers, cow skulls, goat horns, various vertebrae). The artist, Dana Albany, admitted it did not really mean anything. He struggled for a moment or two with a vapid "life out of death" analogy, but soon gave up. "It's whatever you want it to mean," he said. Burning Man was "about power, people, power to create and direct your own destiny," a typical speaker shouted, but he received only curious glances. It wasn't for lack of his trying, though-he was nude (save for sneakers), standing atop a battered Dodge Tradesman van, waving his arms. The promise of a fun-pack of M&Ms lured him down from the van for a quick interview. "These are"-he searched for a word-"a real blessing, dude. Sugar. But you know what I'd do for meat, right now? Like a hamburger." He is an artist from Oakland, at Burning Man for a second year. He and his wife sell their handmade jewelry, and he sculpts, as well. "Radical self-expression," he said. "That's what we're doing here." People clumped together in "Theme Camps," but for a "celebration of radical sex-expression" the camps were fairly uniform-and uniformly meaningless. The most common themes were mock religious: a Church of the Slide Guitar, a Temple of the Dessicated Rat, a camp called Oh! Communion!, even a Burning Tower of Babble-On. The Temple of Ishtar, which held nightly ceremonies, was typical. By 8 p.m. on Friday night, a small crowd had gathered at the camp, waiting as a frustrated priest/god tried to make a battery-powered fountain work. The fountain was to have formed the temple's entrance, providing an inch-deep foot-bath to keep the sacred space clean. "We are all gods and goddesses here," a topless forty-something hippie proclaimed after the fountain was fixed and 20 or so proselytes had gathered on the temple's many mats. "My name is Patricia, but tonight, I am the Priestess/Goddess Riasha." To the severe disappointment of a dozen or so college-age guys squatting awkwardly on the mats, the temple ritual quickly devolved into a lecture from a Women's Studies course. It was all about the holiness of self, the neglected female deities of the ancient world, and of course the evils of Christianity. After more than an hour of this (and after most of the college students had drifted off, leaving a handful of middle-age men and several confused-looking couples), things picked up. Priestess/goddesses led initiates into the inner circle of the temple (more mats, surrounded by a ring of eight or nine small tents), for Sensual Story and Dance. "Open your mind," one priestess/goddess said-just in time, too, because at that moment, a heavy, naked, completely blue woman emerged from a tent. "In the beginning was the goddess," she chanted, as other celebrants came out of tents and began a somber, showy, ridiculous dance. "She laughed, and there were stars. She saw her reflection, and there was love." The storyline of this ad hoc creation myth was hard to follow. Ishtar (the goddess) fell in love with herself, but then split and became male and female or maybe it was light and dark and anyway, after lots of new selves emerged and there was sacred sex all around, it all imploded again, and the large blue naked woman got wrapped in a black sheet. Which symbolized, well, the end of the Sacred Story Time. Then it was time for the serious fornication-or as Riasha termed it, "Consorting, at the complete discretion of the priestess/goddesses." Two couples took the stage. On-staff priestess/goddesses chose initiates to initiate in those smaller tents (no fee, in keeping with the No Capitalism rule of Burning Man, though donations would be accepted if given in the right spirit). WORLD's reporter left. Burning Man was a brutal playground: eight days atop a silt alkaline playa, an expansive salt-flat nearly 4,000 feet above sea level, the Black Rock Desert, near the site where a British team broke the world land speed record in 1997. "Burners" quickly learned to drink water constantly-organizers recommended at least a gallon a day. This year, the event was laid out in a huge circle, more than three miles in diameter, symbolizing a giant clock, the "Wheel of Time," marking the end of the millennium. The dust and the desolation were reminiscent of those Mad Max movies-which made the debauchery seem even more bizarre (think of The Birdcage II: Beyond Thunderdome). A homosexual crowd, including the disturbing San Francisco-based Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (homosexual men in habits), shared the playa with another large contingent-universally known out here as Frat Boys. Those were the college-age kids (mostly young men) who made up perhaps half the attendees throughout the week. If possible, they drank even more beer than water. But after paying the $100-$135 entry fee (late-comers pay more), many Frat Boys seemed vaguely disappointed. "Man, all the wrong people are naked," one complained to his buddy. But Burning Man was tolerant, even of Frat Boys. "Open your mind," an event guide read. "If you're here, you've already started. Let everyone's trip be as holy as your own. When you see an orange-painted person running in circles, find the part of yourself that might enjoy doing that. Allow yourself to 'get it.' Trust your soul to understand everything it experiences." Burning Man is an experiment, organizers said, in building a temporary community. The No Capitalism rule meant that all commercial transactions were outlawed-there was nothing for sale. Instead, everyone bartered. Need water? Trade something. Out of food? Make friends with people better provisioned. It was nearing noon before the wife of the Oakland artist emerged from the battered Dodge van. Slipping out the camper door, wrapped in a sleeping bag, she brightened at the offer of M&Ms-"I'll put them on my cereal!"-and reached back into the RV for a bowl and a box of wholesome-looking granola. She was willing to join the philosophical discussion, up to a point. "Art is for art's sake," she said. "This is about a rebirth of the artistic, the spiritual." As the afternoon sun intensified, even her husband covered up, dragging a sheet out of the van. She busied herself by weaving hemp cord into bracelets and anklets. "I'm still a little out of it," she confessed. "We tripped last night, did some mushrooms." The next camp over was trying to fill the playa with music from Radio Free Burning Man, one of the 19 temporary radio stations set up during the festival. And the playlist made the point: Beatles tunes, some Sinatra, Disney soundtrack songs (Louis Armstrong singing "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah") and the seriously over-represented Magic Bus. Too much-by far. An amateur DJ broke in with a reminder to drink lots of water, then announced the next song. "Here it is, our most requested-by Pearl Jam, it's 'Last Kiss!'" Yes, that "Last Kiss": "Where, oh where can my baby be?/The Lord took her away from me/She's gone to Heaven so I've got to be good/So I can see my baby when I leave this world." Today's rebels can't even come up with their own schmaltz-Pearl Jam's latest hit, reaching the Billboard Top Ten in August, is the 1963 weeper about a girlfriend lost in a car crash. "Man, that's pathetic," the Oakland artist laughed. "Maybe that's why meaning is so mysterious out here. Maybe we just don't have anything original to say."

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