If you can’t drain the swamp, maybe you can fill it with Playa dust. The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in collaboration with The Burning Man Project, has brought “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” to Washington, DC, after a prior installation with the Nevada Museum of Art.
The Renwick is an intimate space, recently renovated, a little removed from other Smithsonian museums. Like the best art on the Playa, you have to work a bit to find it and the effort is worth it. Curators managed to fill the playa-relatively small space with a great selection to give others a taste of what it is like to go to Burning Man.
Your attention is quickly drawn to the first room on the left, where a large dioramic paper-crafted archway has four peep holes in the legs, each with something to surprise you, like a big scary spider right there. Signage on the walls gives a primer to Burning Man, complete with definitions of MOOP and sparkle pony. It also introduces the 10 Principles. Overheard conversations of those getting their first experience with Burning Man were priceless: “They have a barter economy,” “Everybody goes naked!” “They blow things up.”
The next room holds representative “Burner” clothing. A sexy white leather dress with feathers is suspect (see MOOP, above) but impressive. What dominates this room, though, is a replica of Marco Cochrane’s “Truth is Beauty” from Burning Man 2013, his glorious towering metal statue of a naked dancer poised on tiptoe, arms raised, back arched. Brilliantly lit. She’s one third her Playa size but of the original cast.
A fire-breathing dragon art car appears in the next room, made of muffin tins and other bakeware, along with a movie showing the Playa evolving from empty space to a thriving city to empty space again all in two weeks. And did I mention the movie theater art car?
Upstairs the exhibit really gets cooking. A chill space beckons, with pillows on the floor and sound-activated neon ceiling lights. Giant mushrooms from the Foldhaus Collective collapse and grow. The Man stands in his own space in a gallery next door. The show stopper is a David Best Temple that takes over an entire 5,000-square-foot room.
When I walk in, it takes my breath away and I’m overcome. I’d left a remembrance for my mother in Best’s Temple of Grace, in 2014. (I’d left the 2013 Burn just in time to be with her in her unexpected last moments.) The Renwick Temple design lives up to the beauty he achieved then, with its intricate altars, alcoves, and obelisks. Signage at the two entrances explains the place the Temple holds in Burner culture. A table nearby offers 3-by-5 inch balsa wood cards for museum patrons to write down their thoughts. Most are respectful and heartfelt, though I see a banal “LA, CA” juxtaposed with “Thank you, Larry, for all my friends (heart, heart, heart emojis).”
Outside, Mischell Riley’s “Maya’s Mind,” Kate Raudenbush’s “Future’s Past,” and Laura Kimpton and Jeff Schomberg’s “XOXO,” among others, are all a short walk away. This public art, however, has signs saying, “No Climbing.” I tell people on the sidewalk, “At Burning Man, if it can be climbed, it will be climbed.”
I return to The Temple the next day for another look; the day before was a lot to process. I had also said goodbye to my father in the 2017 Temple Burn. He died that year, four years after my mother. It was a Monday, east coast-humid outside, less crowded. A loud Hungarian couple argue in the corner. My dad was a hot-headed Hungarian, so I’m never sure when Hungarians are arguing or just talking. I approach a docent, appropriately adorned in a blinking blue neon necklace. I ask if she understands the sacredness of The Temple, even if in a museum. She’d never been to Burning Man but had done her homework. “Yes,” she says, “But this being a public place, it is hard to keep people quiet.”
I ask her the fate of The Temple when the exhibit closes. “It is uncertain,” she says. Maybe a tour around the country, maybe some regional burns. Maybe some unknown donor will endow it as a permanent installation. The balsawood cards, however, are collected every few days and are being saved, and they will be sent to a Temple burn. Eventually. Apparently, the cards cannot be burned on National Parks lands, so they are trying to figure out where. I suggest the Playa in 2019.
We chat a bit longer. The art, she tells me, was commissioned especially for this project. Which explains why everything was so clean. All the artists have had projects at Burning Man. I was struck by the thought that maybe what our nation’s capital needs is a little more Burning Man, and a little less of the other shit going on here.