The Art of Burning Man

Burning Man is an annual event, or should we say happening, that takes place in Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada. Burning Man is a gathering of a community in a temporary city, not to be confused as a festival. Each attendee is a participant in the event and is encourage to provide something to others—albeit free art, free entertainment, or even free food to others. As no money changes hands at the event, participants are expected to bring food, beverages, shelter and anything else they might need.

We have never attended a Burning Man. Given its remote location and the difficulty in scoring tickets, we aren’t likely to either. That’s why we went to the current “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California. This  is the closest we are likely to come to Burning Man. The exhibit is a limited, but well worthwhile introduction to the cultural festival/bacchanalia.

The Art of Burning Man

The exhibition begins with a room of exhibits and panels (which are also summarized in a film) that explains the history, evolution and underlying principles of the festival (Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy) and the organization that has grown around it. It explains how the organization’s commitment to civic responsibility has led to the creation of its own, temporary, volunteer “police force” and “Department of Public Works” to manage the crowds and the post-event clean-up and its “Burners without Borders” program which initiates civic works projects and disaster relief in communities around world.

Burning Man's Ten principles

Burning Man History

Burning Man started when two friends set fire to a nine-foot wooden statue they brought to San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986. A crowd gathered to watch it burn. Today the event attracts over 70,000 people to “Black Rock City”. Movie stars, billionaires and just normal people come from around the world to this remote stretch of Nevada’s desert. In addition, Burning Man stages over 80 affiliated events in dozens of countries.

From its humble origins, Burning Man now boasts roughly a 40-foot wooden “The Man” sculpture and a multi-story “Temple”, both of which are ritually burned at the end of the 9 day event.

Burning Man modelBurning at Burning Man

In addition to a continually growing number of experimental, often interactive and participatory art installations, Burning Man now includes a number of elaborate, specially commissioned works, a few of which were on display.

2019-12-13 11.54.16Burning Man Duane Flatmo's Tin Pan Dragon

The exhibits also included more elaborate works including a giant, elaborately carved and decorated paper arch, a large-scale computer-controlled musical device made of kitchen pots, “mutant” vehicles and a mobile movie theater.

Burning Man Paper Arch image

The exhibit also contained displays of a number of interactive, multi-sensory “experiences posters, painting, photos, costumes, and jewelry.

Burning Man costumesBurning Man head dressBurning Man model

Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that the exhibit continued in the museum’s outdoor space and missed seeing David Best’s 40-foot tall temple. Fortunately, we did see the temple’s elaborate interior at Washington D.C.’s Renwick Gallery. We also missed Marco Cochrane’s graceful “Truth is Beauty” sculpture and had to settle for a photo by Trey Ratcliff of the sculpture that we found online.


The Burning Man exhibit is in addition to the museum’s incredible, exhibit-packed gallery that traces the history of California from the days of Native Americans and Conquistadors through the Gold Rush, the Depression, the Black Power movement and the birth and growth of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. A complementary gallery traces the history and range of California Art.

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