Festival: Burning Man - celebrating love, life and loss
Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll? Nope, burning man is far more about creativity
The impression many Irish people have of the Burning Man Festival is of dreadlocked hippies causing chaos in the desert. I almost tripped over a threesome conducted outdoors – in broad daylight, my first hour there, so I can't say the image is wholly off the mark...
But, like our emigrants in Oz, it only takes a shower of ingrates to tar the good name of thousands. Anyone who has gone to 'the Man' – as it's known – with an open mind, will most likely have had it blown, thanks to the sheer force of artistic innovation, goodwill and the positive ethos fostered by the festival.
A temporary city is constructed by festivalgoers in the middle of a playa (a dried-up lake) in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. One hundred and twenty miles north of Reno, it's a wild imaginarium, built around a 50-foot Man, set ablaze on the second last night.
That idea reaches back to the festivals origins, founder Larry Harvey marking the end of a relationship by burning an effigy to symbolise his 'new beginning'. Like a hipster Christ child, his actions and guiding principles are celebrated annually by those with a taste for counterculture, artistic expression and survival in harsh regimes, taking a year's worth of frustrations into the desert and partying them to pieces.
Temperatures reach as high as 28 degrees celsius, before plummeting at night, while wild sandstorms occur, often daily – conditions that affect the clothing of the punters. Along with elaborate scarfs, short shorts, barely there swimwear and protective goggles, Mad Max chic and bestial prosthetics are the order of the day, while human flesh acts as a canvas for neon bodypaint, or as a two-finger salute to society's demand to cover it up.
Buying and selling goods is forbidden. The festival operates on a gift economy, a merging of pay-it-forward theory with old school bartering.
'Burners' – as those who attend the festival are called, are expected to bring enough water to cover their time on the playa (1.5 gallons per day) and all their food and alcohol requirements, although there are hundreds of theme camps who 'gift' every type of food and drink imaginable.
"It's crazy," photographer Mark Nixon says, reflecting on his first burn in 2013. "I was just cycling along and this guy invites me in to his camp, which was specifically set up to provide burners with breakfast. It was this huge catering kitchen, with eggs and toast and butter and salad. I mean, fresh salad in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the week!"
A similar thing happened to him with a Canadian crew who had brought a fully stocked bar across the border with them, while I myself have had the best sushi, casadias and mojitos in my life all made and distributed out on the playa.
Perhaps the best proof of Burning Man's community ethos the fact that Black Rock City provides free health care for all its citizens. The doctors and nurses all provide their time for free.
Transportation around the six-mile site is pedaled, pedestrianised or on board one of the many art cars – motorised and creatively altered vehicles designed to look like giant insects, vegetables, birds, etc. In 24 hours I'd hitched a lift on a life-sized pirate ship, a to-scale replica of the Adam's Family house and a giant polar bear with glowing blue eyes and a disturbing penchant for singing Enya.
"A guy I was staying with fell in with this crowd who had made an actual sailing ship that could sail under it's own steam," says Mark.
From the five-storey slide, to a giant see-saw flinging you 25ft in the air, the motorised sand surfing, consensual 'stalking' adventures and the giant roller rink, the variety of activities on offer makes Alice's Wonderland look like government craic. There are even intensive workshops in sexual practices not spoken about in family newspapers.
Look one way and there's a giant octopus flinging flames out of each tentacle. A Viking ship by day becomes a fire-breathing dragon at night. There's stationary interactive structures, sculptures the size of houses, balloon and light spectacles, performance art and pyrotechnics.
Naturally, its growing success has had some people decry its decay. More and more rules have been added since gunplay and high-speed driving lead to the festival's first death in 1996. Paul Addis was imprisoned for two years after he deployed a crash cart to the festival's anarchic spirit in 2007, setting fire to the Man early in the week – an action disillusioned festival co-founder John Law described as "the single most pure act of 'radical self-expression' to occur at this massive hipster tail-gate party in over a decade".
But the Man has a spiritual side as well. Escaping a sandstorm in 2011, I took shelter in the nearest structure, five towers, connected to a central building, each containing Gothic arches, pagoda-style roofs and decorative panels adorned with Celtic and Maori design. There was a bang of a cloister of it and, as the dust literally settled, I became aware of its inhabitants.
People were crying openly, hugging or staring off into space. Yet more people were meditating. There was a reverent silence, the slight breeze setting off chimes that, though light, almost drowned out the rest of the festival, which raged like an apocalyptic carnival beyond.
On closer inspection, the walls were not only decorated with pre-planned art, but with heartfelt inscriptions, admissions, apologies and regrets. There were photographs, hand drawn pictures, flowers and jewellery.
"The Temple is what sets Burning Man apart," Diarmuid Horkan, a 36-year-old Irish artist, says. "A place for people to remember friends and family that have passed away, or anything else that might be bothering them, with no entertainment component." Over the course of the week the installation becomes a memorial, covered in these heartbreaking tributes and on the last night, the entire community gathers around to watch it burn.
"The idea is that as the Temple goes up in smoke, so too does your sadness."
In contrast with the burning of the man effigy that takes place the night before – a huge celebration with lots of explosives and fireworks – the temple burns in relative silence as 60,000 people communally mourn.
The Temple is the largest art commission awarded by the festival and in 2011, for the first time, it was given to a non-American collective. Known as the International Arts Megacrew, it was co-headed by Horkan and took a team of up to 400 volunteers, from 21 different countries five months to construct. Seven of them were Irish.
Photographer Peter Gordon's book Life and Death – The Temple, gives some idea of its impact on festivalgoers, photos from which are on display at The Alliance Francaise until June 27. "Those of us who don't go to Mass are affected by death in much the same way as those who do," he says. "Some people say going to the Temple is similar to a funeral, the difference being that there isn't a Eucharistic element to the ceremony.
"There's so much sorrow there you can get swept away in it, even if you haven't suffered a loss yourself. But everyone I spoke to said it was a cathartic experience."
One of the defining images from the book is of a note, left by a mother to her child, presumed dead. "Many pieces of my heart have been stolen, and to be perfectly true, I will re-grow all of them, except the piece you took with you".
Friends and family travel from all over the world bring the cremated remains of loved ones to the site. "When the Temple started to go up in 2011," says Maria Cheung – who came to Reno from Ireland two months before, to help construct the Temple, "this guy beside me just started sobbing and sobbing. His dog's ashes were in there, his best friend in the world, whom he could never replace."
Others harness the Temple's spiritual energy for more life affirming experiences, with several weddings taking place there each year. While Maria also tells me about the 'Temple Worshippers', "people who rise before dawn, to get to temple, to watch the sunrise, then meditate and breathe incense until it gets too hot. The temple is like their Mecca."
Attendance of the festival ain't cheap. A ticket costs $380 for seven days. Flights to Reno/Vegas/San Fran all start at around €750, RV's cost in excess of €600, so you're looking at over a grand for a week's holiday. And that's before you even invest in your food and festival clobber.
If you're the adventurous type, you can parachute in for free, something I discovered to my absolute terror as I stumbled home one dark light of morning, to panicked cries of 'get out of the way', coming from above and descending rapidly. (The city has its own airfield).
Mark looked up the Burning Man Community Discussion Forum to find people to share an RV with. "It's a great source of information as all the old school burners are there to dispense advice. It's gas, as some of them have no patience and take the piss."
One of the most common requests regards access to showers, which even when you have an RV, is severely limited. "We were only having very quick in and out showers and very early in the week our tank got backed up and we had to waste an entire day for someone to come along and change it."
Irishman and five-time burner Bob Doyle says the best way to 'burn', should you have the time to commit, is to get involved in an art project.
"The Burning Man website puts up a list of all the projects and theme camps up just before Christmas. This way your food will be paid for, you might be able to get a couch to sleep on in Reno and you may qualify for a cheaper ticket, if you are prepared to rough it for a while."
Bob and Maria both headed out in July, to join Diarmuid who'd been there since May. "Finding accommodation is a priority," Diarmuid says. "Volunteers from Reno host international folk without knowing them in advance, while most people have some sort of connection to the festival beforehand and stay with friends."
Unlike most art works constructed for the festival, it's your story, not your CV, that will get you selected for the Temple build. "Some people who were on our crew were not particularly skilled," says Diarmuid, "but when we talked to them, they were so compelled to give their entire life over to the project for three months, because of a loss they may have suffered, we told them 'we'll train you, just come'."
"There are pros and cons to this approach," says Bob. "I come from a building background, so I want to have the best team possible to carry the load. And you see a lot of people who feel like they have got in over their heads. They get upset because they can't use a measuring tape, or a power tool, or whatever. But on a project this size there are jobs for everyone."
One hundred and fifty volunteers worked on the Temple's construction in Reno, with more joining in Black Rock City. There were architects, engineers, electricians, machinery operators, quantity surveyors, carpenters, cooks and artists. Maria was the chief fluffer.
"People were working 12-14 hours a day. They were so committed, particularly when we got to the desert, that they forgot to eat.
"In a harsh environment, where you're sweating away the salt in your body, fluffers go around and hand out ice water, electrolytes, chewy bars, peanuts, juice and sun screen, so people don't black out or dehydrate."
Construction moves from Reno to the site of Black Rock City about three weeks before the festival opens to the public. "When we arrived, there was a handful of shipping containers, a shelf and 250 members of the department of public works out there. That's it," says Diarmuid. "
"The desert is absolutely pristine. Then you see these tracks developing. The tracks become a path, which becomes a road and you get to see the city rise which is just astounding.
"The build was absolute madness," says Bob. "Sleeping when you could, working if you were awake, hammers going 24/7. With a week to go to the festival, Joe the Builder – one of the organisers, wanted to restrict the size of the temple because he didn't think we would get it done on time.
"And that was the end of sleeping. He came back two days later and said 'you guys are nuts'. But there was no more talk of decreasing the size. When it was built I thought I would never come back."
But he did. They all did.
"To see the effects of what we did – with a few bits of timber and nails and screws, had on other people's lives ... you could actually see them leaving looking lighter," Bob says.
The night of the Temple burn, the 400-plus volunteers brought all their booze from their camp and watched along with everyone else. "It was so emotional," says Peter. "It was silent, except for the roar of the fire and the occasional holler from the crowd; 'thanks X' or 'We love you Y'. Thousands of people got something meaningful out of something these guys had invested their lives in."
"People ask me 'how can you justify spending so much money – and waste so many people's time, on something that you're just going to burn," says Stephen Reilly, another Irishman who worked on The Temple.
"But it touched up to 60,000 people in some way that year, and god knows how many it effected by proxy. In burning, it did exactly what it was supposed to do."
Peter Gordon's book Life and Death – The Temple is available in Eason's, while his exhibition of the same name runs at the The Alliance Francaise until June 27. The Burning Man Festival takes place from August 25 – September 1.
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent