About two-thirds of the way through NK Guy’s enormous, gorgeous, and thoughtful new Taschen book, Art of Burning Man, the author/photographer makes a small confession: “For all the wonders of Burning Man, it has to be said that not all the art is inspiring.
It doesn’t matter if I’m wandering through Burner art studios in a former repair facility for cargo ships in Oakland, standing beneath a 40-foot steel female nude on Treasure Island, or gawking at the fire-breathing kinetic machinery that is annually trotted out for the Maker Faire in San Mateo. To my outside-observer’s eyes, a lot of what passes for art at Burning Man is the sort of thing that only a Steampunk mother could love.
Of course, that’s exactly my problem – I’m merely observing the artifacts of an event that is first and foremost about participation. My eyes lack the participant’s context, which should doom an artifact about artifacts like Art of Burning Man. Guy’s book, though, which was shot over 16 years, helps readers experience life on the Playa by organizing the sculptures, art cars, temples, and the Man himself (from installation to incineration) according to the rhythms of a typical day – morning, afternoon, evening, night. In this way, the book is as much about the environment of Burning Man, particularly the effects of its infamous dust, as the objects that have been sited here and there for the amusement of revelers tripping balls on Molly. To be sure, Art of Burning Man includes plenty of that, but Guy seems more interested in how art can become a focal point for the pancake-flat Playa, a place that’s weirdly well suited for curious contraptions rising from nothing in the middle of nowhere.
That’s probably why I was so transfixed by the photographs in which clouds of dust obscure participants and objects alike, as well as the ones devoted to the temples (the book features a foreword by perhaps the best known designer and builder of such structures, David Best). Unlike most of the interactive objects photographed by Guy, which could be dismissed as play structures for adults, the temples are powerful places of repose, where participants can get a little shade, zone out, or leave messages for departed friends and loved ones. And like the Man himself, the temples are destroyed, burned to the ground, the loss of their physical presence and beauty a searing reminder of the temporality of all things. On the Playa, or so it seems, the best things eventually turn to dust, which may explain why so many participants are so keen to go back year after year and experience it all over again.
Art of Burning Man
by NK Guy
2015, 280 pages, 10.4 x 13.6 x 1.1 inches
$44 Buy one on Amazon