No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man (March 30, 2018- January 21, 2019) at the Smithsonian Museum’s Renwick Gallery should not be missed by anyone. The exhibition allows us to understand the roots of this unique annual festival held in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, where for a few days the desert becomes Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis dedicated to community life, art and self-expression for all its creators and visitors.
In order to grasp what this means in the American cultural experience and its wider meaning, you must first understand its roots and how it came to be what it is today. In an age of marketing and branding where everything is strategically thought out and executed with an agenda, this festival is a refreshing departure from such norms as it grew organically to become the mammoth cultural movement that it is today, attracting tens of thousands of visitors a year.
It all started when two young artistic friends, Larry Harvey and Jerry James, cobbled together in an ad hoc fashion a wooden figure 8 feet in height and dragged it along with some like-minded friends to Baker Beach located in San Francisco.
Then they decided right there to burn the figure to the ground.
What makes this cultural movement so rare is its core principles, which include: radical inclusion, gifting, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, the idea of leaving no trace behind, participation and immediacy.
At Burning Man, everyone participates as they create the city, the interaction, the art, the performance and ultimately the experience of Burning Man.
In “No Spectators,” visitors are able to experience the spirit of the festival, despite not attending the event, with large scale installations including a centerpiece temple made entirely of wood by the artist David Best, who has integrated temples into the Burning Man festival since 2000.
These temples are typically burned to the ground after the festival to inspire healing and community.
However, before then, visitors can pray, mediate or write down their wishes or prayers for others or themselves on blocks of wood to be placed throughout the wooden edifice.
Visitors will also see many mind-blowing installations that will titillate the attendants’ senses and make for many an Instagram-worthy image.
Some of the artists who are showcasing their pieces that were originally displayed at Burning Man include: David Best, Michael Garlington, Natalia Bertotti and Android Jones, to name but a few.
Visitors will also be able to see many large-scale sculptures surrounding the Golden Triangle Neighborhood, which encompasses a 43-foot radius.
The current exhibition has taken over the entire Renwick Gallery, just blocks away from the White House, and is considered a National Historic Landmark.
In 1858, William Wilson Corcoran, a 19th century banker, philanthropist and art collector, commissioned James Renwick Jr., an architect of much renown who had earlier designed the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, D.C. and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, to design the Renwick Gallery.
This marks a significant moment in American architectural history as it was the first time a building had been designed expressly as an art museum intended to house Mr. Corcoran’s own American Art Collection.
Mr. Renwick was inspired by the Louvre Museum in Paris and designed it in the second empire style, which at the time was the height of French fashion.
The architect integrated pavilions, the mansard roof, and double columns with his own creatively ingenious design and natural creative interpretation of these elements of Parisian style.
The words “Dedicated to Art,” were inscribed in stone above the front entrance. It was completed following the American Civil War and was dubbed by many as the American Louvre.
Visiting the exhibition at the Renwick Gallery is by far the best way to go to the festival without the actual crowds or the noise and all the surrounding cacophony.
It’s your own private moment with the art and crafts that make Burning Man such a sensational cultural experience for so many in the United States. ■