THE AUSTRALIAN ART CURATOR BLOG: WHAT CAN AUSTRALIA LEARN FROM BURNING MAN?

If you don't know what Burning Man is, where have you been?

Maybe you first heard about it only a week or two ago, when it was reported that Tourism and Events Queensland spent $27,000 to attend it last year. According to the ABC, a TEQ spokeswoman said they went to research for a potential similar festival in rural Queensland.

Intriguing.

Maybe you’ve seen pictures from Burning Man on Instagram (and if not,  just how have you weaned yourself off the gram? #BM has been beautifully clogging up my feed for years now).

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Burning Man, 2018, Credit: Merran Morrison

The Nevada-based art event sees 70,000 ‘burners’ gather in Black Rock Desert for a week-long celebration of creative experimentation, avant-garde art and radical community cooperation. This all makes for a (almost) no-holds barred place of experimentation, AKA an adult playground. And what do they do?

Burners create hundreds of jaw-dropping, large-scale artworks across a stretch of the desert called the playa.

Burners climb on top of artworks, swarming over art built out of anything from ‘art cars’ à la Mad Max, shopping trolleys, plywood: free of social constraints and rules - this would never be allowed in a museum.

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‘Perpetual Consumption’, Clayton Blake, Credit: Merran Morrison

Burners practice decommodification by entering a ‘gifting’ economy, where they give items away (without the expectation of receiving anything in return).

Burners enter The Burning Man ‘Temple’, and leave behind meaningful mementos in a ritual of grief. “Immersing, expressing, leaving something behind, letting go”. This comes into play when the Temple - and everything inside it - is burnt on the final night in a rite of renewal.

‘Galaxia’ - The Temple at Burning Man 2018, as designed by Arthur Mamou-Mani. Credit: Merran Morrison (L), Alex Medina (R)

Although it’s been around since 1986, this festival has seen an explosion of popularity in recent years; something which has closely mirrored our ability to quickly upload and share photos. More people than ever are seeing the incredible artworks created at the event - and clearly there are many Australians who want in.

Yet in Australia, when at times it can feel like many don’t see the value of art, (but can easily see the value of commodifying creative spaces), it seems almost impossible that this level of exuberance, and destruction could be replicated on this scale.

When you have to justify costs, budgets and safety plans there’s not much room to argue for the building of a giant artwork, just to burn it down under a week later.

But how amazing would it be if it happened? Permanence is not always the best, and there’s plenty of room for ephemerality in Australian public art. The creation of short-term installations can be empowering. It feeds into a dynamic cultural scene, leaving room for new ideas and emerging debates.

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Credit: Merran Morrison

READ: OUR THOUGHTS ON PLACEMAKING, COMMUNITY AND INEXPENSIVE CULTURAL PROJECTS.

For now, there are lessons we can learn from Burning Man about creating ephemeral and experiential artworks in Australia. Art Pharmacy Consulting spoke to long-term Burner, public art curator and cultural planner, Merran Morrison, to find out what public art lessons can be gleaned from Burning Man.

Merran Morrison, as told to Art Pharmacy Consulting’s Kate Bettes:

What is the link between Burning Man and ephemerality?

Merran Morrison: “Ephemera and temporary experience is absolutely fundamental to art and cultural experience. Festivals have always been a part of human celebration and ritual and I think what makes Burning Man is that the creativity goes on all year (whereas the festival itself only goes for a week).

People spend a year conceiving, planning, building, crowdfunding and groups of a hundred to three hundred people are all working together in this community of burners.

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‘Helios’ Kate Raudenbush 2016, Credit: Merran Morrison

There was a most extraordinary work by Kate Raudenbush (‘Helios’) in 2016 and was all made out of ply. People stood in each one of these panels and hung on, and when everyone did the same kind of thing together, the lighting in the whole  sculpture would emerge. By Thursday she’d burnt it. It was so sad!

The artworks appear on the playa for a week and then disappear. So it does have this extraordinary ephemera that feels quite sad in a way. But the making and experiencing and then burning is a part of the letting go, and the renewal aspect. You always ask, how can we make it a bigger and better next year?”

What’s the difference between having art in an ephemeral desert setting and a more traditional museum space?

MM: “The museum is bounded by an incredible number of rules in terms of its delivery [of art]. And then you go to Burning Man and you think, oh my god,  you’d never be able to put that in a museum!

People climbing up [sculptures made out of] shopping trolleys, being this far away from burning flames and you know people are getting away with a lot.

In some way you could say it’s a return to a playground, you're allowed to run barefoot  and climb trees. But on the other hand the Burning Man Organisation is full of rules, and the rules of engagement, consent, fair play; the rules of garbage and environmental protection.

So it’s a very unique and experimental space from that point of view.”

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Credit: Merran Morrison

Can this level of ephemerality and experimentation be brought into the public art sphere in Australia?

MM: “As someone who commissions public art, the life of an artwork is a very key thing to its capacity to be realised: who funds it and why, and how long it's going to work in a  public setting.

Often there’s not that much difference between the safety requirements to something that needs to last a  year to something that needs to last ten years, but I've delivered artworks that have to last 25 years, so all the engineering of those materials and the requirement for very strict maintenance practices adds a great deal of expense to that.

In short term Burning Man is a gob smacking expression of creativity, from personal expression and costume to major artworks. Some of these artists go onto public commissions. Or they’ve done it in plywood on the playa and they can now do it in steel for permanent commission.

We will not see the long term creative impact [of Burning Man] for some time. Because it isn't just about the event: we can't live on this planet anymore, we’re isolating ourselves from our communities, we are working for the man, and we operate from  commercial consumptive values that are unsustainable.”

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Detail from ‘Helios’ Kate Raudenbush 2016, Credit: Merran Morrison