The photographer NK Guy has made a pilgrimage to Burning Man almost every summer since 1998. During those weeks at Black Rock City in the Nevada desert, when more than 65,000 people join together as citizens of a temporary hedonistic world, his lens was drawn to the incredible sculptures, installations and performance art that the festival has become famous for. The result is “Art of Burning Man”, a weighty—and wonderful—200-page collection of his photographs.
If you haven’t been to Burning Man, perhaps you would struggle to imagine a Steampunk fire-breathing octopus, the “Lost Tea Party” (a camel train of oriental teapots on wheels) or “Omar Kabish the Fish” (which is actually a car). Or to understand the epic scale of the 50-foot “Trojan Horse” being pulled along by hundreds of “slaves”. And who could believe that someone would build a half-size replica of an American revolution-era frigate complete with functioning rigging, and ride—by sail-power—around the desert on it?
The desert (the “playa”) is a blank canvas. Everything you take with you has to be transported by road for hundreds of miles and taken home at the end of the week, so your luggage must be practical: something to sleep in, something to eat and plenty to drink; a bicycle to traverse the wide, flat plain; perhaps a hat to keep off the 40-degree heat and a faux-fur coat for the sub-zero temperatures at night. Plus the real essentials: your Mad Max-esque goggles, your Steampunk Victoriana and your whimsical flowery headdress. (All with flashing lights attached.)
The art, too, has to be transported and erected on site. Pieces range from huge works that dominate the horizon, to the smallest objects seemingly left on the desert floor, inconspicuous until you cycle past and have to swing back for a closer look. For the large-scale works builders from all over the world truck the materials in; then they’re joined by teams of rugged construction volunteers from the Burning Man Department of Public Works who labour for weeks under the blistering sun—Guy describes one crane operator as “a virtuoso playing a musical instrument”. Some are full-sized wooden buildings; others are metal statues, mobile “art cars”, or sculptures made from almost anything. The festival’s proximity to Silicon Valley makes it a tech-magnet: increasingly, artists are experimenting with electronics and computer programming, making pieces that light up or make noises.
I remember seeing a friend’s photos of the “Big Rig Jig” (two upended tankers balanced on each other, which is now at Banksy's new theme park, Dismaland) and not being able to comprehend the huge, oh-so-American scale of the event. I had to see it for myself. And as I now flick through the images in Guy’s book, I’m reminded of the incredible things I saw during my two visits: the beautiful “Bliss Dance”, a vast and fluid figure of a woman dancing made from hand-welded steel in 2010; and watching the Temple of Juno—a beautifully intricate fretwork building—burn in 2012. Each year there is a temple at Burning Man, a contemplative space free of religious dogma where burners can leave notes, mementoes and prayers to be engulfed in flames at the end of the week. Beauty and forgiveness are built into their very structures—when these temples burn, “everything inside becomes free”, says Guy.
With an eye for vibrancy and colour, Guy captures the artworks up close, as people wearing elaborate fancy dress—or the Burn’s trademark goggles and bandanas—interact with them or watch them go up in flames. He also shoots the artworks in quiet solitude, with the mountains looming behind, or from the air, creating vast and busy panoramas.
The book moves through morning and afternoon to evening and night, tracing a week at the festival and ending with burning the Man (a Saturday night ritual) and burning the Temple (on Sunday). Time and temperature are critical to your experience out there—and to Guy’s photography. The crisp, clear rising of dawn grows into the flattering “warm light and long shadows of morning”, he writes. But the “intense, dry, relentless” heat of the afternoon is lousy, as the “sweat of your brow drips and fogs your viewfinder”. In the afternoon, dust is swirled up by hot dry winds, yet by sunset the “rich and improbable colours” of the sky provide cooling relief and incredible backdrops. At night, “rainbow pinpricks of a million LEDs scatter across the horizon” as artworks, and people, are illuminated. And, of course, it is night-time when the fires are lit.
Guy’s photographs celebrate the art at Burning Man, but what comes across so strongly in this book is not just the works themselves but the people who make them, and the culture in which they are imagined, incubated and realised. Bringing art to the playa takes a great commitment of time and money: most of the creators aren’t professional artists, and while some are given art grants from ticket sales, the majority fund their projects wholly from their own pockets, or through crowdfunding. Not all the art inspires everyone, but Guy pays homage to the creativity and individuality that each piece represents: “It’s clear that any artist that goes to the massive effort of hauling an installation out to the inconvenience of the desert has something they want to express.”
So, why burn these magnificent and meaningful pieces at the end of the week? I like to think it’s because you then have an excuse to start again, to begin planning for next year on the long drive back to Reno. Call your campmates and tell them your ideas. Gather your crew. Raise some money and start building. As for Guy’s book, it is for the in-between times, the 51 weeks of the year when followers of the Man need to be transported “home”.