Center for Art + Environment Blog

September 14, 2016   |   William L. Fox

Sine Waves on the Playa

A View from David Best's 2016 Temple. Photograph by Sara Frantz.

I don’t go to Burning Man every year, so when I do, the experiences tend to link up one to another across time. And no more so than this year, which was one of my favorite burns. Sara Frantz and I stay at the Outback camp, the province of Danger Ranger and Dusty Ranger, aka Michael Mikel and Dusty Michael. This year “M2” and Dusty had installed a shower in the camp, a wooden closet on wheels that allowed you to shower with a gallon or two of water and capture the runoff for transportation back home and recycling (ie. watering the bushes).


And that reminded me of my first year at Burning Man, 1992, which was also the first time for art at the event. Among the handful of projects that year was a wooden series of troughs assembled like an overhead Rube Goldberg sculpture—which ended in a two-stall “Desert Shower.” It was both participatory sculpture and architecture, users having to pump water out of a cistern shaped like Pyramid Lake in order to activate the shower. The artist, Gregg Schlanger, also installed a “Waterway for Reno” in the Reno City Hall that same year, our city then as now in the middle of a drought. The shower, along with local printmaker Jim McCormick’s cartographic grid laid out on the playa, were the two earliest manifestations of art-in-common to both Burning Man and Reno.


The event this year also evoked for me how consistent, strong and sometimes surprisingly successful has been the crossover of art and architecture to one another at Burning Man. Part of that is a symptom of our times, the truism about artists wanting to erect structures and architects wanting to make art. But part of it is also the fact that structures are essential on the playa for creating shade. Shelter from the sun is a necessity for survival on the Black Rock, so much of the art tends to be inhabitable, or at least available for a walk-through. My two favorites this year were David Best’s temple and the multi-structured Black Rock Lighthouse, a massive family undertaking led by father-son team Max and Jonny Poynton.


In 2000 I camped next to David Best as he and Jack Haye built the first temple, which was named “Temple of the Mind,” a tribute to their fellow builder Michael Hefflin. The large lacy enclosure, constructed out of birch scraps left over from cutout wooden dinosaur toys, was both ethereal and earthy, lifting up your spirits when you entered it even as, by virtue of all the memorials written on exposed surfaces, it anchored you to mortality. This year the temple built by Best had no name. It was simply “The Temple,” and it was simply grand. Six stories and a hundred feet tall, Best’s eighth and final temple was, according to him, not art; perhaps he would consider it more like a piece of community spiritual infrastructure. But that would be like considering Schlanger’s “Desert Shower” just a piece of plumbing, versus a smart visual metaphor for the ancient Lake Lahontan that once covered most of northern Nevada, and of which Pyramid Lake is a vivid reminder in drought seasons.

David Best's 2016 Temple at Night. Photograph by Sara Frantz.

David Best’s 2016 Temple at Night. Photograph by Sara Frantz.

The fifty-by-fifty floor of the temple was connected to the upper reaches of the temple by a single slender stalagmite rising from the floor and a gently swinging stalactite suspended from the beams above. They would almost touch, a longing made palpable by the art-itecture. We didn’t stay to see it burn, and I’m glad; I’m not sure I wanted to see the only structure built on the playa that feels like it should have stayed there forever go up in smoke, although that is of course the point. The longing.

David Best's 2016 Temple, interior view. Photograph by Sara Frantz.

David Best’s 2016 Temple, interior view. Photograph by Sara Frantz.

The Lighthouse project was likewise constructed from mostly recycled wood, a series of three leaning towers connected by rope-and-board bridges. The tallest tower, named Brigette, was sixty-five feet high and inhabited by a library divided into the three ages of man, its books and toys and decorative insanity a compelling narrative of a mind gone wild. The assemblage was at once a treehouse on a treeless plain, a funhouse firmly anchored in the deep playa dust, and a work of light that resonated between the Victorian Era and contemporary works of illumination at Burning Man over the years by artists such as Leo Villareal and Michael.


Next summer the Nevada Museum of Art will open an exhibition about the evolution of Burning Man titled “City of Dust: The Evolution of Burning Man.” It’s scheduled to travel in 2018 to Washington, DC where it will become part of a larger exhibition mounted by the Smithsonian. The echoes reverberating among the art projects, and the breaking down of barriers between art and architecture on the playa are seismic triggers for far larger movements, and the two exhibitions will demonstrate the important and growing effect that Burning Man has on the global culture since the annual celebration started thirty years ago on Baker Beach in San Francisco.