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No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man

Renwick Gallery, Washington, DC
Through January 21

When Black Rock City rises from the Nevada desert each August as the ephemeral home of the Burning Man festival, the otherwise empty site becomes home to more than 60,000 temporary residents who bring dramatic sculptures, immersive installations, and supplies for the barter economy along with their goggles and dust masks. My uncle went in 1996 and was raving about it when my family visited him that summer in San Francisco. He showed us how carefully people discarded cigarette butts into Altoids tins and vividly described the way the remote gridded community lit up at night. Yet for most Americans who are even aware of it, the art-filled festival is too extreme, too expensive, or too far away to be experienced.

The Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery has given the public access to this distant city with No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, an exhibition that explores the oversized sculptures layered in minute details or the kinetic pieces that respond to human proximity, all of it begging to be Instagrammed. A room of photos, documents, and paraphernalia traces the history of the festival from the original burn in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco through to the present day. While the largest pieces reward careful inspection, the archival material feels overwhelmingly intellectual.

As in Black Rock City, the pièce de résistance is the Temple. The smell of balsa wood, familiar from model building, overwhelms the senses in this cavernous and intricate space, and instantly transports me into memory. The forced contemplation is intentional. David Best, the artist behind the installation, says, “There’s a lot of places for people to celebrate, but there’s not a hell of a lot of places for people to reflect on loss.” Small rectangles of balsa wood are available for reflection. I write a message for my uncle, who died in 2006, and tuck it into the detailed scrollwork on the walls that are full of shelves and curves specially built for holding our collective sadness and shared sense of wonder. At the end of the exhibition, there’s an option to visit the desert using virtual-reality goggles, but I demur — the physicality of the installations in the Renwick and the emotions they elicit are all I need.