Shortly after Nora Atkinson was hired in 2014 as a crafts curator at the Renwick Gallery, she pitched a crazy idea — an exhibition dedicated to the art of Burning Man, the late-summer gathering of anarchic spirits in the Nevada desert that culminates in the incineration of a giant, wooden effigy of a man. The week-long Burning Man isn’t technically an art or craft fair, and Atkinson struggled to make a case for the show, an odd fit in buttoned-down Washington, the seat of bureaucracy and government power. But eventually, her boss, Elizabeth Broun, then the Renwick director, responded: “I don’t really know what this is, but I can tell it’s going to be interesting.”
That’s an understatement.
The exhibition, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man,” opens March 30 , with works filling the entire museum and, in a partnership with the Golden Triangle business improvement district, spilling onto neighboring streets .
“No Spectators” still isn’t easy to wrap your head around. As Atkinson conceived it, the show wouldn’t quite be fine art, but not exactly craft either (at least not in the traditional sense, epitomized by the Studio Craft Movement of the late 20th century: furniture, pottery, glass, metalwork, jewelry and fiber).
Burning Man, Atkinson explained during a recent tour of the show, is more about the ethos of the contemporary Maker Movement, a burgeoning D.I.Y. trend among creative types — often flying below the radar of the art establishment — that promotes, among other things, repurposing castoff materials. One of the outdoor works on view, by a husband-and-wife team known as Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson, is a 14-foot-tall sculpture of a grizzly bear covered in a “fur” of 170,000 pennies. An indoor piece, by Duane Flatmo, is a pedal-powered, dragon-shaped vehicle fashioned from discarded aluminum cookware.
The heart of Burning Man, Atkinson argues, isn’t artifacts, anyway, but rather people and community. So how exactly do you show that in a museum? There’s a you-had-to-be-there vibe to the whole endeavor.
As the name implies, “No Spectators” aims to capture some of that had-to-be-there energy. In a shift from standard museum protocol, it isn’t about gawking — or, rather, it’s not just about gawking — but participating. If the Renwick’s previous eyepopper, “Wonder,” was all about taking Instagram selfies with the art, “No Spectators” wants you to put down the cellphone and connect.
Many of the items in the show can be handled, sat on and otherwise interacted with and/or entered. Along with the more traditional, look-but-don’t-touch displays of costuming and jewelry, digital paintings and archival material about the history of Burning Man, “No Spectators” boasts several immersive and interactive installations. Candy Chang’s “Before I Die” features chalkboards, inviting visitors to complete this sentence: “Before I die I want to [blank].” There’s also a bus — assembled on-site, but minus an engine — that has been converted into a miniature, working movie theater by the arts collective Five Ton Crane — complete with fake concession-stand candy, a parody newspaper blaring an “Art Heist” headline and film canisters with treasures inside.
Like Burning Man itself, “No Spectators” requires a certain comfort with contradiction, mixing the pleasures of visual hedonism — eye candy, for lack of a better word — with works of a more spiritual, even sacred, bent. (The metaphor of a Burning Man conjures notions of passionate life and mortality.) And there’s an inherent irony to being in a museum, looking at art, some of which is, like the burning man of Burning Man, ephemeral and destined to be destroyed.
How well does the exhibition capture the elusive nature of Burning Man? Read our guide to “No Spectators,” and then, in the true spirit of the show, get out and see for yourself.
The entrance to “No Spectators” is, quite literally, a threshold. Symbolizing the transition from stodgy Washington to the wilder world of Burning Man, this 15-foot-tall, 25-foot-wide archway of wood and particleboard is plastered with black-and-white photographs of flowers, theatrically costumed models and — in a nod to both D.C. and the exotic — taxidermy critters from the National Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Mammals. Commissioned specifically for “No Spectators,” this site-specific work, by veteran Burning Man artists Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti, seems to whisper as you pass through, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Remember the news from the fall of the National Park Service denying a permit a group that wanted to install a 45-foot sculpture of a naked woman on the Mall? She’s baaack. Marco Cochrane’s 18-foot version, in steel mesh, of the same nude model (dancer Deja Solis) is the centerpiece of a gallery featuring, ironically, elaborate costumes and jewelry. (Tyler Fuqua’s “Thorax, Ambassador of the Insects,” which the artist wears at Burning Man as a kind of informal, bug-inspired performance piece, is an especially noteworthy example. Burning Man, as Atkinson notes, is known for both nudity and theatrical get-ups worthy of a Vegas showgirl.)
Cochrane’s joyful figure, which captures Solis on tiptoe, arms raised and back arched, is the perfect icon for the #MeToo moment. Part of the artist’s “Bliss” series, it is both straightforward and, sadly, aspirational: According to Atkinson, Cochrane meant to capture what it would feel like if a woman were able to live in a world utterly without fear.
The heart of the Renwick is its expansive Grand Salon, on the second floor. And the heart of “No Spectators” is a huge installation called “Temple,” which has transformed the cavernous, ballroomlike hall into a space that is both sacred and celebratory — a paradox embodied by the altar installed at one end of the room and the giant chandelier that descends to 10 feet above the floor.
It all comes courtesy of David Best, a San Francisco sculptor who, since 2000, has been building similar structures at Burning Man out of recycled wooden panels. (Best describes his material as the stuff used to make the 3-D, natural-wood “dinosaur-puzzle” construction kits you might find in a natural-history museum gift shop.)
In an interview during installation, Best said that he didn’t initially think of the first structure as a temple but that it ended up being used that way. A young man who had apprenticed with him had recently been killed, Best said, and Burning Man attendees — or “burners,” as they’re known — who were friends of the dead man began flocking to the chapel-like enclosure as a place of mourning and remembrance.
Since then, Best has returned every year to create what is now officially consecrated as the Burning Man “temple,” which holds pride of place just behind the central effigy that lends the festival its name and is ultimately set ablaze.
At the Renwick, visitors are invited to leave a wooden block on which they’ve written the name of a deceased loved one, as a token of thanks for what that person gave them — tangible or intangible. It may seem odd, Atkinson says, to find the spiritual interwoven with the spectacle at Burning Man, but that it really isn’t. “A lot of burners,” she explains, “are a little bit religious about the whole thing.”
Best’s “Temple” isn’t the only contemplative space in “No Spectators.” There are three other oases of peace that offer a place to chill out or trip out, depending on your taste.
At the chill end of the spectrum is an installation of complex, polyhedral forms by Yelena Filipchuk and Serge Beaulieu, an art duo known as HYBYCOZO. (Inspired by “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the name is short for Hyperspace Bypass Construction Zone.) Evoking the cutout brass lanterns of a Middle Eastern inn, HYBYCOZO’s laser-cut steel abstractions, some of which incorporate lights, create an ambiance both exotic and strangely soothing. One of the works, “Deep Thought,” is large enough to sit inside.
On the trippy end is “Nova,” by Christopher Schardt, a former programmer “who used to do art for fun,” as he puts it, but who now considers himself “an artist who does programming for fun.” On the floor, you’ll find a rug and comfy pillows; overhead is a star-shaped screen featuring a kaleidoscopic LED light show. Plop down, turn on, tune in — to the sounds of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4.
Situated somewhere in between those extremes is “Shrumen Lumen,” a Lewis Carrollesque installation of giant, multicolor origami mushrooms made out of folded corrugated-plastic boards. Created by the FoldHaus art collective, it playfully evokes the otherworldliness of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Step onto one of several strategically placed pads, and these magic mushrooms — which contain hidden motors, but no active hallucinogens — gently fold and unfold above you, like psychedelic umbrellas mimicking the closing and opening of your mind.
The idea for “No Spectators: Beyond the Renwick” came about simply: Certain large sculptures deemed for the museum’s Burning Man exhibition wouldn’t fit inside the building’s front door.
The partnership with the Renwick, which sits just outside the boundaries of the Golden Triangle business improvement district (BID), is the first of its kind, bringing six public artworks to the neighborhood to complement the Renwick’s show. But it’s not Golden Triangle’s first foray into public art. Placards printed with haiku poetry are visible in tree boxes throughout downtown Washington, and wooden sculptures by local artist Foon Sham have been installed in rain gardens at 19th and L streets NW.
But the sculptures featured in “No Spectators: Beyond the Renwick,” which was partly underwritten by Lyft, go against the grain of so much D.C. art, which tends toward memorials dedicated to white men on horseback. “Beyond the Renwick” includes a portrait of poet Maya Angelou, cast in cement by Mischell Riley; an installation of giant bronze crows by Jack Champion; and monumental steel X’s and O’s, with LED lights, in a cheeky riff (by Laura Kimpton with Jeff Schomberg) on pop artist Robert Indiana’s famous “Love” statue. (Printed maps are available at the Renwick.)
You could, of course, forgo the map, and wait to chance upon the art, unexpectedly. According to Leona Agouridis, executive director of the Golden Triangle BID, the motive behind this display is the same as the Renwick’s: creating a sense of discovery, and fostering engagement with a world from which we are too often disconnected.
The seeds of Burning Man were planted in 1986, on San Francisco’s Baker Beach, where a guy named Larry Harvey had gathered a dozen of his friends to celebrate the summer solstice by building, and ultimately burning, a human effigy made of wood. The next year, they did it again. And again the next. In 1990, after the city banned fires on the beach — and the group had exploded to more than 800 people — Harvey relocated the inexplicably popular ritual to a dry lake bed, or playa, in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, at the invitation of a group of kindred, anarchic spirits calling themselves the Cacophony Society.
Lo and behold: Burning Man had taken root.
It had also taken hold of the imaginations of a diverse assortment of regulars, who came to call themselves “burners”: hippies, artists, dadaists, pagans, New Age spiritualists, anti-capitalists and many members of Silicon Valley’s newly wealthy digerati, who, according to “No Spectators” curator Nora Atkinson, may have been drawn to the event’s unplugged earthiness as an antidote to the deadening nature of the electronic lifestyle. Fun fact: The first Google Doodle, appearing in 1998, featured an image of the now iconic burning man. It was, in essence, an out-of-office message, letting the world know that many of the tech company’s employees had gone fishin’, as it were, at the playa.
Today, attendance numbers in the tens of thousands, and a section of the participants’ encampment typically includes an enclave of billionaires. The organization’s offshoots have grown to include such forms of socially conscious outreach as Burners Without Borders, a group that provides disaster relief and other aid around the globe. The annual festival is guided by 10 core principles, including radical inclusion (everyone is welcome, and anyone can show art), decommodification (gifting, not cash, is the currency), and leaving no trace (hence the burning). Though still infused with an anything-goes spirit, Burning Man runs more like a well-oiled machine than an anarchy. “When it evolved to 70,000 people,” Atkinson says, “there had to be an adult in the room.”
Inside the Renwick Gallery and throughout the Golden Triangle district. Renwick Gallery: Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street NW. 202-633-2850. si.edu/museums/renwick-gallery.
Dates: The show opens Friday and closes in two phases. Works on the first floor are on view through Sept. 16, and works on the second floor are on view through Jan. 21. The outdoor works are on view through December.
Public programs: Information about related programs, including gallery talks and an outdoor walking tour, is at americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/burning-man .