From the Director: Burning Man Road Trip

 Stephanie Stebich, SAAM's Margaret and Terry Stent Direction in the museum's Lincoln Gallery. Photo by Gene Young. 
Stephanie Stebich
The Margaret and Terry Stent Director, Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery
August 31, 2018
This is a photograph of Stephanie Stebich standing next to the Ferguson's Ursa Mater at Burning Man.

Stephanie Stebich on the Burning Man playa with Ursa Mater by artists Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson.

Our website asks the question: Where Will American Art Take You? In response, we've put together an occasional series of artful road trips based on staff experiences and artworks in SAAM's collection.

Last year, this time, I flew from DC to San Francisco on the first leg of my trip to Burning Man, the annual gathering of 70,000 folks in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. After that, I got on the Burner Express Bus, and another 400 miles and seven hours later, I was on Playa, greeted by, "Welcome to Burning Man, Welcome Home." Soon after, I was taking in the enthralling sights, cacophonous sounds, and monumental artworks, some of which would be burned on a nightly basis. 

For me, it was an adventure: both a road trip and a work trip. My reason for going was to prepare myself for the most ambitious exhibition in the history of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery. We were organizing No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, the first major museum exhibition to explore the art and culture of this yearly gathering. I wanted to experience it firsthand. And since the exhibition opened on March 30 of this year, it's been a phenomenon, with nearly 500,000 visitors experiencing it in the first four months on view. 

Being on Playa made me think of how Burning Man resonates with two hallmarks of American art. The first is the awe-inspiring landscape and grandeur of space that artists have conveyed throughout the centuries. The second is the spirit of inventiveness and creativity. From time to time, we find a place in America that is symbolic of this type of invention. Burning Man is clearly one of those: each year for a brief time, a community rises out of the desert and brings together the creative talents of artists, makers, doers and thinkers. It is a uniquely American experience as well.

And what many people may not realize is that Burning Man has a list of Ten Principles that guide its mission. These include gifting, radical self-expression, radical self-reliance, leave no trace, immediacy (you need to be present, and, as the Renwick exhibition title acknowledges, you need to participate, and not stand on the sidelines), and decommodification.

I have to say, as a guest of the Burning Man Organization, my accommodations were atypical. I got to stay in a converted cargo container, that luckily had a window, A/C, as well as a power outlet. Deluxe accommodations! When I was still home and thinking about what to bring, I was at a bit of a loss.  How do you pack for the desert? It can be 100-plus degrees by day and in the 60s at night. As for what to wear, I chose “Safari” style, given the dust and the need to carry many things in my pockets. I brought a hydration backpack, sleeping bag and anything else I could carry easily. And what about food? I figured what would be best would be anything that couldn't melt, so I grabbed apples, nuts, and power bars at a deli before boarding the bus. Plus, lots of water. You really have to bring in everything you need. 

At night, I was invited to a dinner with Nora Atkinson, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft and the curator of No Spectators. As I was about to enter the tent where the dinner was held, I heard the words, "Can I style you?" Ah, so maybe "Safari" was not what they had in mind when they came up with radical self-expression. I said, "Yes," and soon, I was out of my khakis and trying on different outfits, but nothing seemed to work. My "stylist" asked me about my life in DC and then said, "American Art...Hmmm...How about Wonder Woman?" I gave an enthusiastic "yes" to that idea, and soon I was dressed as a desert version of the superhero, including a feathered boa and a red, white, and blue sequined cap.

I'm happy to report that I thoroughly enjoyed the dinner as well as my short stay on Playa. Museum business beckoned me back home, a little dustier but with the knowledge that I met some extraordinarily creative people and experienced amazing art installations and magical evening burns. And, once a burner, always a burner: I hope to return to Playa in the near future. I invite you to think about a first or return trip to the Playa or to experience No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man.

The sculpture piece, Shrumen Lumen, at Burning Man at night lit up.

FoldHaus, Shrumen Lumen, 2016. Photo by Rene Smith.

This blog post is adapted from a talk to the members of the Smithsonian Associates.

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man will close in two phases. The ground floor installations will close on September 16, to make room for the Renwick Invitational. The second floor installations will close on January 21, 2019, with David Best's Temple remaining on view even longer.  



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