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For years our main experience with Burning Man was that then-B.A.R. art director Adrian Roberts took off from SF for the duration of the event, sometimes along with our whole production department. Roberts edited "Piss Clear," an alternative newspaper for the Playa, and edited an anthology of the publication for RE/Search books.
Now "City of Dust: The Evolution of Burning Man" (through Jan. 7, 2018) at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno tells the tale of how a countercultural ritual at San Francisco's Baker Beach has evolved into one of the planet's premier annual art happenings. Using methods from anthropology and archeology, the show uses archival materials to follow the Big Man from his first conception under founder Larry Harvey as an art ritual on the beach (1986-89) around the time of the summer solstice to its current incarnation as an art-tourist event and gathering in the barren Nevada desert around Labor Day. The show includes a model of the 2017 Burning Man, which is burned in a climax of the event, and posters from throughout the happening's many years.
Art has always been integral to the BM experience, and the exhibit includes plans and drawings for artist David Best 's meditation temples, documentation of the inherently ephemeral art of the Playa, and a list of artists who have been inspired by their BM sojourns, including "Bay Lights" artist Leo Villareal. There's a model of the Golden Spike, used each year to mark the center of Black Rock City, and jars filled with remains left after the eponymous man is burned to ashes.
No less important to the success of the annual event is civic design. The show includes plans of the semi-circular grid city designed by landscape architect Rod Garett who understood that city planning, theme camp placement and emergency access roads were important to the coherence and safety of the instant city.
Photographs, artifacts, journals, sketches and notebooks all contribute to our understanding of the BM phenomenon. Oddly, though, there is no reference in the exhibit to drugs or alcohol, which seem central to the experience. Despite this caveat, "City of Dust" is an interesting and thorough survey of this seminal art experience, the desert convergence of free spirits and artistic impulses. And it was great to see Adrian's book with the other Burning Man merch available for purchase in the museum shop. The exhibit will travel to the Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, in spring 2018.
PS: One consequence of the annual art pilgrimage to the Playa has been a certain bohemian sediment that's left along the way. When we were in Reno last month to visit the NMA show, so-called Artown events pointed to the vibrant art culture that has taken root in the Northern Nevada city. Burning Man artists take advantage of Reno's available and inexpensive warehouse space as studios where they can create their spectacles. Better than lugging a lot of papier-mache from SF, no?