The Renwick's (David) Best Temple

David Best in front of his Temple at the Renwick Gallery.

Installation shot of David Best with Temple for No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2018, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, photo by Libby Weiler

David Best began building temples about twenty years ago, in response to the tragic death of a friend he was mentoring, Michael Hefflin, a Shakespearean actor and sword fighter.  They were building a three-wheeled motorcycle for Burning Man when Hefflin went out on his own motorcycle one night and crashed. At the cemetery, Michael's friends said, "Michael would have wanted us to go out to the desert." They were two weeks away from  Burning Man. According to Best, "These kids had never had death before. It was a new thing for them." They continued to work on the structure, which was turning into a tribute to Hefflin.  At Burning Man, the structure became a way for others to remember people who had died in motorcycle accidents. It would be set on fire and burned.

The next year, Burning Man asked Best to come back and build a temple. The elaborately created structures have become an integral part of the Burning Man experience. Since 2000, Best has designed and coordinated the construction of approximately half of the Burning Man temples. These massive yet incredibly intricate structures are ephemeral. Participants adorn the temples with memorials and inscriptions before burning the structure, an act that is meant to inspire healing and community. As Best describes them, they are "sacred spaces for people to reflect on loss."

Visitors to #NoSpectators: The Art of Burning Man are invited to leave their own inscriptions in the Temple on small wooden plaques.

  • David Best creates temples for Burning Man that are made of recycled wood and ritually burned at the end of the annual festival. In this video Best discusses the Temple he created for the Renwick Gallery’s Bettie Rubenstein Grand Salon, as a sacred space for people to reflect on loss.

    DAVID BEST: My name is David Best. I’m an artist from Northern California. I’ve been building temples for about twenty years now. I’ve always done collaborative projects with people. I’m going to make a sacred space on the second floor of the Renwick and people are going to come who have lost sons and daughters and mothers and brothers and come and reflect on that loss and celebrate their lives rather than grieving. There are plenty of places for people to celebrate, and there’s not a hell of a lot of places for people to reflect on loss.

    The value of the temples is that they are temporary. It’s for those people that have had something really serious in their lives. The difference, of course is it’s not in the desert, but my intention is the same. It’s important that the temples are burned. I kind of shoot myself in the foot by doing that, because all my art, I don’t have any art, it’s all burnt. I have nothing to show for the last twenty years. I’m not that great of an artist that I can make a structure that’s going to last for a thousand years or 200 years. I think there’s a quality of a temporary temple is what is the most important part of it.

    In the temples like what we are making, no matter how much craftsmanship and finesse I put into it, it’s that person that comes and works on it that has no skill at all that puts the spirit in the project. That’s that invisible sacred. For me, craftsmanship is not the most important thing, the most important thing is that the person that has something to get out of their soul and out of their body gets to get it out. The temple is a nondenominational temple. It’s open to Republicans and Democrats, Atheists, and people with tattoos, and people with straight ties on. It’s a place where someone can go to be forgiven or to seek forgiveness or to seek solitude from grief.


    Learn more about the artists and artworks featured in the exhibitionNo Spectators: The Art of Burning Man.

    Related blog posts: Discover the Art of Burning Man at the RenwickWho Wore it Better? Burning Man Dresses up the RenwickSneak Peek: Burning Man Unfolds at the RenwickHere Be DragonsFeel the Burn: the Art of Burning Man Comes to the Renwick in March