Art & Design

Sep 10, 2013

On the ground at Burning Man, a cavalcade of counterculture

Freelance journalist Hari Raj takes in the cavalcade of art, costume, nudity and general weirdness that grows every year in the Nevada dessert.

Burning Man

A long way past midnight on what might have been Thursday, I met a woman in the desert wearing only a backpack and a smile. Her teeth chattered while we chatted about her son, and neither the leggings she later donned nor the huddle of people who joined us to wait for the sunrise could stop them. I lent her my favourite poncho, the sun painted the sky with pastels and fire, and I forgot to ask for it back when we left. Later, I consoled myself with the knowledge that this nameless, friendly stranger was warm -- and then, that afternoon, she walked right past my camp. "There you are," she said, utterly unfazed by the karmic Brownian motion that had again sent us careening into each other. "Here’s your poncho. Also, I made you a hat. And would you like a brownie?" Burning Man is full of stories like this, and over the past three decades it has steadily filled up with people. In 1986, Larry Harvey and a handful of friends gathered on a beach in San Francisco to set a wooden effigy of a man on fire. This year, some 68,000 people came together to create a city--  one that they will pack up and take with them when they go, leaving nothing but dust and memories. Every year, in the last week of August, the impossible flower that is Black Rock City blooms from the Nevada desert. It is an oasis of ideals and imagination that at times feels like the love child of Mahatma Gandhi and Lewis Carroll, a cavalcade of counterculture arrayed clockwise around the central figure of the Man. The 2013 iteration has him astride a flying saucer, in keeping with this year’s theme. Explaining the appeal of Burning Man is a swift road to bafflement. The most common question I was asked about was which bands were playing, the next was how I showered. Mumbled negatives to both certainly didn’t help. The alkali flat on which it takes place is one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Nothing lives there, no wildlife or vegetation. There is no food. There is no plumbing. The sand is so thirsty that spilled water disappears in seconds. Once you’re past the queue and you’ve set up your camp and you’re ready to wander, however, all becomes clear. Well, not quite clear -- this is a bounty of visual stimulus that is as diverse and discombobulating as the interior of a kaleidoscope. The first sight to greet us was that of a 20-foot mobile metal octopus spouting flame from every tentacle. There were costumes of every description, and at least as much nudity. There were art installations looming dramatically out of dust clouds, and mine was surely not the only jaw agape. Astonishing as this sounds, however, what goes on at night is exponentially weirder and wilder. Bicycles and people swarm past, bedecked in electroluminescent wire. The art installations are completely different in the dark, part of the carnival of neon and flame that stretches in every direction. Vehicles lovingly teased into unrecognisable shapes, laden with speakers and passengers, rumble by in a blaze of colour and music. It’s a trip even without the aid of stimulants legal and illegal, which are officially frowned upon but readily available.

Burning Man

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One thought on “On the ground at Burning Man, a cavalcade of counterculture

  1. AR

    More detail would have been appreciated but it is a reminder that its antithesis, Woodstock, was the beginning of the end for an alternative society. It was conceived and advertised as a “music & arts” convocation – ie people would come and participate, showing what they could do and what they hoped to do.
    Instead it was a quarter of a million over entitled kiddies sitting around in the mud, waiting to be fed & entertained by grown-ups and assorted bread-heads.
    And thus the next 30-40 years was grounded leading to Nixon, Raygun and assorted Shrubs.

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