At OMCA, ‘No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man’ rejects pretenses of authenticity, embraces creative disambiguation

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For the uninitiated, Burning Man possesses a certain mythical quality. Maybe you’ve heard of drugs, sex and alcohol galore; maybe you’ve heard that you can sometimes spot the likes of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg there; or maybe you’ve heard that it’s essentially a cult. 

“No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” doesn’t confirm or deny any of these presumptions; in fact, it doesn’t advance any single cohesive narrative about what Burning Man is or isn’t. What the show, which opened at the Oakland Museum of California, or OMCA, last month does provide is a glimpse into the creative process so central to the gathering, while also allowing for a taste of the broader ethos of the event.

As a whole, the OMCA iteration of the production is admittedly less grand than the original, which premiered at the Smithsonian museums’s Washington, D.C. Renwick Gallery in March 2018. The Renwick installation provided many of the large-scale installations with their own rooms — also distributing six Burning Man sculptures throughout the city’s business district. At OMCA, the show has been appropriately scaled down to fit the venue, with many pieces grouped into broader general galleries and only three large-scale installations placed outside, all on museum grounds. 

Even while working within the confines of a tighter space, the exhibition exudes a commendable loyalty to its roots. Organized in part by the Burning Man Project (the nonprofit that coordinates the annual gathering), the show revolves around the central tenants of Burning Man or its idealistic “10 Principles”  — most of which tout ideals of community involvement and decommodification. The collection on display makes up a veritable wonderland for viewers, sure to enchant younger museumgoers and perhaps give their older counterparts a contemplative pause. Many of the installations in the exhibition, having been built for Burning Man, are constructed to align with the participation model — visitors are invited to play with (Rachel Sadd’s Oakland-specific, knick-knack-providing “Gift-o-Matic”), spin (Richard Wilkes’ psychedelic “Evotrope”) and even walk on (Five Ton Crane Arts Collective’s “Capitol Theater”) pieces. 

The establishment of “No Spectators” in the East Bay feels appropriate considering the gathering’s Bay Area roots. Between twirling zoetropes and clanging robotic gongs (reminiscent of Aaron Taylor Kuffner’s “Gamelatron Bidadari”), the exhibition peppers historical mementos and literature to provide a background narrative for the now-famous gathering. Viewers (or, as the show hopes, participants) learn that the first man, so to speak, was burned on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986. The tradition continued annually until 1990, when the police put a kibosh on the ritual, spurring its move to its current location in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. 

Of course, there’s a particular and blatant irony in the show, putting art designed largely for a gathering that touts a motto of “No Spectators” on display is, on the surface, rather paradoxical. Effective execution of this show calls for a high level of audience participation, in accordance with the Burning Man principles of radical participation and inclusivity. If there’s any museum to pull this off, it’s OMCA. The institution’s robust public programs and regular community engagement events have cemented it as a cultural hub in the East Bay (check out the museum’s Friday Nights if you haven’t — they’re not to be missed). 

Nonetheless, a notable effort toward not advancing a tinted narrative of the gathering also culminates in the decision to call for those who have actually attended Burning Man, or “burners,” to serve as docents in the galleries. The guides come clad in their (often self-made) desert gear and provide supplementary information and accounts of firsthand experiences to visitors. 

Ron Feldman, one of such docents and a 10-time Burning Man attendee, noted that the exhibition doesn’t mirror the gathering itself precisely — and it’s not supposed to. “This exhibit is about the art of Burning Man, so you don’t really get a sense of the Burning Man community here,” he explained.This really is about the kinds of art that have developed and the artistic movement that has developed.” 

In accordance with Feldman’s observation, the museum environment is inherently too sterile and rigid, even at OMCA, to begin to approach an authentic replication of the feel of Burning Man. Thus the exhibit is more of an anthropological meditation on Burning Man than anything else. Yet it is also one that consciously invites the visitor in to project their own experiences on to the pieces.

David Best’s “Temple of Reunion,” embodies that notion well. Located on OMCA’s second floor terrace, the piece creates a space of reflection and calm that, more than anything else on view in “No Spectators,” demonstrates the force of collective creation. Best is well-known among burners as the sculptor behind the delicate temples built in the playa over eight past Burning Man gatherings. Best designates this temple for remembrance — “If you have lost someone dear to you, if you are suffering, if you need forgiveness or shelter, or comfort, this Temple is for you,” reads a plaque installed near the entrance. 

Within the temple, visitors are invited to add their own remembrances to the sculpture by writing the name of a loved one on a piece of provided recycled wood. The cumulative effect is a collage of deeply personal remembrances — combined in a joint expression of grief, mourning and, at the same time, togetherness. 

“No Spectators” may not claim to replicate the experience of attending Burning Man; yet some of its features, such as the temple, come together in such a perfect harmony so as to nearly achieve just that.

Ryan Tuozzolo covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].