Burning Man is grand-scale theater for eclectic spirituality, self-expression, personal transformation, communal bonding, and cultural renewal. For one week every year, around 50,000 participants transform a harsh and utterly empty expanse of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert into a pulsating cultural laboratory populated with hundreds of art installations. Culminating in the spectacular incineration of the eponymous wooden effigy, Burning Man is a sensational and provocative outpouring of the human creative spirit.
Burning Man is guided by a set of core principles, including radical self-expression, radical self-reliance, radical inclusion, immediacy, and gifting, among other ideals, which serve as a social glue for the event. Key among these ideals is the call to be a participant, not a spectator. This participatory decree is not bound by rigid demands or specific expectations, but rather invites each individual to search within him- or herself and discover what creative spark demands to be made manifest.
Perhaps Burning Man’s most spiritually significant installations are the annual series of Temples, initiated by Petaluma, California–based artist David Best in 2000 and continued by other Burners in recent years. These chapel-like structures—the design of which changes from year to year—are introspective spaces dedicated to memory and mourning, in which participants are invited to inscribe memorials and leave mementoes for their beloved dead. At the festival’s conclusion, each Temple is set aflame as thousands congregate in reverent silence.
Other spiritually resonant and ritualistic artworks over the years have included operatic performances amid hollow, towering infernos festooned with gargoyle faces and horned deities, sculpted out of desert mud (Pepe Ozan and team’s operas and “lingams”); anticonsumerist parodies of Christian evangelism, complete with traditional-style gospel music (Rev. Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping); a massive, open-framework Gothic cathedral (the Conexus Cathedral by the Conexus Village); a giant inflatable Ronald McDonald, reimagined as a golden Buddha (Ronald McBuddha by the Church of Renault); labyrinths, goddesses, crosses, and Balinese kecak. All are freely appropriated and playfully reconceived on the blank canvas of the Black Rock Desert.
The art of Burning Man is often explicitly interactive and draws upon the vast well of human culture and history. Every symbol ever imagined is liable to turn up in the Black Rock Desert and be gleefully reshaped into new and hybrid forms. In so doing, participants make and remake social meanings and inscribe shared identities. Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss called this bricolage—the process by which we all cobble together our belief systems about the world based on the sensory, cognitive, cultural, and historical ingredients we have at hand. Art participates directly in this process and engenders feelings of spiritual connection by immersing us in immediate creative experience.
Religion itself is a nexus of bricolage. Religions are simultaneously defined by fixed boundaries and traditions, yet are also malleable and adaptive witnesses to historical and cultural change, with dynamic and ever-contested meanings overlaid upon one another, century by century, in response to changing contexts. Through art, symbol, and ritual our perceptions of the sacred are produced out of the cultural and natural elements available to us, as we tell ourselves stories about what it means to be human.
Art summons forth deep layers of human experience, where the sacred and the creative intersect with the realm of imagination, profoundly textured by the natural and cultural worlds around us. Through direct and embodied creative encounters, the sacred oozes out beyond the convenient borders of religious traditions. Burning Man’s raw artistic pastiche decenters “the spiritual” by questioning comfortable assumptions about the nature and location of religious practice. In calling for immediate and participatory engagement, the art of Burning Man challenges participants to confront a sense of inspiration and the extraordinary.