Two Burning Man artworks created by the community and commemorated

Art

Chinwe Oniah

Erin Douglas, installation view of BLACK! Ase at Burning Man, 2022. Photo by Manuel Pinto. Courtesy of Burning Man.

On the Thursday night of this year’s Burning Man event, September 3, 2022, a crowd of black burners formed around BLACK! Ase, a major work of art on the playa. They huddled together for the annual Black Burners group photo, a tradition that began in 2018. On Sunday evening, another crowd of Burners from all stripes formed around the empyrean temple, a wooden structure that resembles an eight-pointed star when illuminated. The temple housed memorials – photos, cards, flowers and personal tchotchkes – of deceased loved ones. Both crowds were particularly enthusiastic, meeting on the playa for the first time since 2019, thanks to Burning Man’s COVID-related hiatus.

Since its inauguration in 1986, Burning Man has been a radically utopian space. It’s a paradise for artists who imagine large-scale wild works of art and a place where new traditions can take hold. While Burning Man also has a reputation as a hedonistic week-long party in the desert, its community ethos has become especially meaningful after years of isolation and major change across the globe. BLACK! Ase and the empyrean temple illustrated renewed creative commitments to community and unity. Their importance persists long after they were destroyed on the dust of the Black Rock Desert.

Erin Douglas, installation view of BLACK! Ase at Burning Man, 2022. Photo by Erin Douglas. Courtesy of Erin Douglas.

Erin Douglas, the artist behind BLACK! Ase, first attended Burning Man in 2017. Excited and nervous upon her arrival, she sought out other color burners to guide her through the experience. “I wanted someone who looked like me to tell me I’d be fine – and they did,” she wrote in a blog post for Gasoline magazine in 2019.

Douglas started the Black Burner Project in 2018, photographing burners of color, sharing their stories, and encouraging people of color to challenge themselves to go to new and unfamiliar spaces. His Black Burners group photo – a sort of family photo – has become a tradition for the Black Burners on the playa. The group has grown every year, emphasizing a growing and inclusive community.

Erin Douglas, installation view of BLACK! Ase at Burning Man, 2022. Photo by Chayna Girling. Courtesy of Burning Man.

This year, We Are From Dust, an organization that helps artists showcase their work on and off the playa, approached Douglas with the opportunity to exhibit a larger work of art on the playa. Douglas developed the idea of BLACK! Asean installation featuring the photographs she has taken of black burners over the years, enlarged to scales of 30 feet.

Mounting artwork at Burning Man has been a longtime dream for Douglas. “When I felt the call to start documenting people of color, I had no idea it would eventually turn into this,” she said.

Douglas noted that the concept of his piece isn’t groundbreaking, but that’s exactly what makes it striking. “We don’t get people to look up to us, we don’t take up space, we don’t live in our power,” she explained. “I think it’s sad that you have to keep telling people why it’s so important. It’s minor in action, but the impact is huge.

Laurence Renzo Verbeck, installation view of empyrean temple, 2022. Photo by John Curley. Courtesy of Katie Eldridge and Burning Man.

Hope Douglas BLACK! Ase the installation becomes a tradition as inherent in Burning Man as the burning of the temple. While Burning Man’s main event is the Burning of Man on Saturday night, the event doesn’t officially end until after the annual temple burning. While the Burning Man ceremony is rowdy, the temple burning is silent and solemn.

The tradition of temple burnings began 20 years ago by a happy accident. David Best and Jack Haye, the designers who built the first temple in 2000, dedicated it to one of the temple’s builders who died in a motorcycle accident. Others left tributes to loved ones in the temple, and a tradition was born.

Laurence Renzo Verbeck, installation view of empyrean temple, 2022. Photo by Matt Emmi. Courtesy of Burning Man.

This year’s temple, the empyrean temple, designed by Laurence Renzo Verbeck and Sylvia Adrienne Lisse, was particularly significant. Representing a divine realm, the eight-point empyrean design resembled a compass and was meant to evoke “hope, abundance, transformation, direction, justice, balance of duality, and harmony between the deep and the mundane”. Over the past three years, Burners have lost loved ones to the pandemic — partners, friends, and people they’ve met through Burning Man. This year, they were finally able to unite at the playa and pay tribute.

In a conversation with one of his camp mates, a longtime burner who doesn’t usually think highly of the temple said the burn was something of a catharsis. After two difficult years, having seen deaths among her closest friends and family, the burn offered a sense of closure. Sorrow disintegrated in the desert air.

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