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No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man

May 15, 2018

Snipet of Candy Chang’s installation “Before I Die.”

 

     The Renwick Gallery’s latest exhibit, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man,” opened on March 30 of this year. The new collection will be on display until Jan. 21, 2019, featuring multiple large-scale installations within the museum and throughout the surrounding neighbourhood. 

     The exhibit provides an interesting introspective into the origins and unfolding of Burning Man, the yearly festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. During the event, more than 75,000 people come together for a week, creating an intricate set of installations and campgrounds only to burn them down once the festival is over. Burning Man effectively acts as a temporary escape from traditional society, as bartering becomes the primary means of exchange to obtain resources; “radical self-expression, decommodification, communal participation, and reverence for the handmade” become the norm. This, combined with the art features and musical stages, gives participants an opportunity to immerse themselves in an entirely different world, one that disappears shortly after their brief time in the desert. 

      The Renwick Gallery captures this sentiment perfectly, both through the installations on display and the insightful historical retrospectives inserted throughout the building. Three specific installations appeared to be of significant note. 

      As one ascends the Renwick’s main staircase, an immense, intricate piece comes into view. “Temple,” made by David Best, aims to recreate the traditional Burning Man temples that would then be burned down at the end of the festival. The structure is made entirely out of recycled wood and takes up the entirety of the room. The artist explained he envisioned the piece to act as a “sacred space for people to reflect on loss.” Visitors will find small wooden panels and pencils throughout the room, and are encouraged to write notes that they may then insert into the main wooden structure. As a result, the piece becomes more composite, and reflects the significant number of people who have stopped and reflected within. 

     As one crosses through the various rooms that dot the Renwick Gallery’s space, one will eventually come across giant mushroom-like sculptures that periodically fold onto themselves or extend further out into the room. The pieces were created by FoldHaus, a collective that combines their knowledge of mechanical engineering and product design to create intriguing, playful projects for Burning Man. This portion of the exhibit is particularly fascinating, as the lighting and the structure of the room appear to change with the structures it contains. The sculptures look as though they are moving on their own, the sound of folding or unfolding cardboard and mechanical vibrations being the only giveaways.

     The upper section of the Gallery feature a number of other components, but the two described above were particularly striking. Downstairs, an entire room is devoted to Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti’s artwork, “Paper Arch.” The collaborative piece is an elaborate wood and and paper structure covered with photographic elements. The Arch features a number of hidden nooks and crannies visitors are encouraged to peer into so as to best understand the complexity of the design.

      A later room features Candy Chang’s installation “Before I Die.” The project is displayed on all four walls of the room, and encourages heavy audience participation. Indeed, visitors are prompted to use chalk provided by the Gallery to scribble their hopes and dreams on the walls. “Before I Die” quite literally wants visitors to explain what they would like to do before they die. The suggestions left behind were vast; ranging from political ambitions to travel goals to emotional aspirations. 

      The content within the Gallery provides fascinating insight into the world of Burning Man, and the pieces scattered throughout the nearby streets give an added external dimension to the exhibit. The structures blend into their environment, but provide the neighbourhood with an element of surprise. On a warm summer day, exploring the scattered sculptures almost acts like an artistic substitute to visiting the actual event in Nevada. The entire exhibit is captivating, as the sculptures are bright, often interactive, and very untraditional. The Gallery has outdone itself in the creation of this introspective into Burning Man.

 

PC: The Renwick Gallery

 

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