Burning Man: Where Radical Self-Expression Is Mandatory
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The Man burns tonight!
Once a year the "Man" burns like the mythical phoenix, from whose ashes it then springs back to life. Or, in a pagan sense, this ritual is a re-enactment of the myth of Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods and gives it to humankind, thus signifying the dawn of civilization. Or, in a religious sense, it’s the Hindu god Shiva destroying life and restoring it as well. As for science, the "Burn" represents the nucleosynthesis of heavy elements created in exploding stars or supernovas, leading to the eventual implantation of such cosmic stuff inside us all.
Yes, Burning Man is that deep!
Like many people I’m sure, I’m very happy Burning Man exists. This mini city out in the Black Rock Desert springs into being around Labor Day weekend every year and, these days, about 50,000 people blow in, contending with an inhospitable environment rivaling Death Valley for its stark, sere isolation and beauty, where the occasional dust devil sweeps by like a wayward spirit. Aficionados erect objets d’ art tens of feet high, play all manner of music, cavort in the nude or drive upon the playa in mutant vehicles seemingly designed by folks from another plane of existence. Many attendees are high on substances of one sort or another, so they keep an eye out for Bureau of Land Management Rangers whose job it is to write citations for smoking pot or whatever. (These enforcers always gotta come around, don’t they?)
I just wish everybody had to go – I mean everybody! It should be mandatory for everyone to attend Burning Man, or at least a similar art festival, some of which can be found throughout the world. Going back a ways, Woodstock was a kind of Burning Man, and see what good vibes that engendered. In fact, Burning Man seems to have taken the best of the Peace and Love – or hippie - ethos of the 1960s and transplanted it to another time and place. And we should all thank the pagan gods or whomever for that.
Appropriately enough, this Burning Man thing started at Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1985. Enthusiasts, or burners as they came to be called, particularly two guys named Larry Harvey and Jerry James, ignited the 8-foot effigy of a man upon the sands lining San Francisco Bay. Then, eventually, the authorities said “no more,” as they invariably do, and the festival had to be moved elsewhere in the early 1990s, ending up in a flat-as-a-roadway, dry lakebed in northern Nevada. Organized by the Cacophony Society, the festival at this venue started small and intimate, just a handful of folks tripping out on possibilities. It must have been fun to be one of those artsy pioneers. In those days only hundreds of people attended the festival, and people fired rifles and drove cars over 100 mph, thinking they were at the Bonneville Salt Flats. We’re glad that’s over. A little structure sometimes helps, as crazy as that seems.
Now Black Rock City is the central location and camping area on the playa. This semicircular grid work is home to hundreds of theme camps, where people can delve into whatever they want - belly dancing displays, kinky sex shows, art classes, the essential “critical tits” promenade and many other experiences. Of course, People dress however they want – as outrageous or phantasmagoric as possible - cross-dress perhaps, or wear nothing at all. It’s like the Star Wars bar scene on overdrive, or an acid trip at the bawdiest carnival imaginable. Frankly, I doubt anybody needs psychedelics to experience the otherworldly or the divine or whatever else one is looking for at this wild happening. It’s that intense!
And the Man is now built 40 to 50 feet high and raised on a platform of some kind, which changes from year to year, so it juts imposingly into the cerulean sky. The better to burn it, of course. Other effigies are burned as well, whatever you want consumed by the primordial fiery fingers of destruction, from which creation or re-birth can emerge.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of the Burning Man Festival is that it’s held in a remote location, because if it were held in a suburb of some major U.S. city, the festival would turn into a cross between Disneyland and a Pearl Jam concert. On a related note, the Haight-Ashbury district in the middle 1960s was wonderful until too many people – with the wrong intensions - showed up, ruining it for everyone with a heart. As long as the organizers keep Burning Man where it is, it should remain lively, relevant, spirited and uninhibited, though every good thing seems to end at some point, right?
But let’s hope the Burn never ends because if anything can save the world it’s Burning Man – that’s why everyone should go there. Companies should give their employees vacations to Burning Man, and college graduates should go there before embarking upon the absurdity that is modern life in a capitalistic society. The "compression," as burners call the experience of Burning Man, is certainly therapeutic for humankind. Doesn’t just about everybody need to loosen up a little more? Doesn’t everybody need to explore the avant-garde art shown there? Shouldn’t everyone walk around in some bizarre costume or in nothing at all? San Francisco columnist Mark Morford, who’s been to Burning Man six times, wrote, “It almost matters not from which angle you approach it – the Burning Man is an equal opportunity soul exploder.” Sounds about right to me. By all means, explode your soul!
Of course Burning Man isn’t for everyone – it may not be suitable for children, the Amish or Republicans - but for a world filled with strife, greed, hunger and pollution it’s certainly one of the better options around. Without Burning Man or other festivals like it, the world would be as sterile as a political convention.
In fact, if we wouldn’t get sick of using those latrines, maybe we could stay at Burning Man 365 days of the year – and if we didn’t have to get a job or grow food – it would definitely be a utopia or heaven on earth. Like Woodstock, we could venture back to the Garden. There’s an idea that never grows old, though it could certainly use a new coat of paint.
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Don’t go away! Watch the Burning Man videos shown below: