Thursday, September 09, 2010

What Burning Man taught me about art

For the past several days I've been cleaning the playa dust from costumes and camping gear, doing endless loads of laundry, vacuuming, and wiping. Absolutely everything, even the clean underwear I kept sealed tightly in a plastic bin, was covered in dust. Playa dust isn't like ordinary house dust. It's closer to talcum powder so it blows everywhere, and once wet turns into the consistency of thick water-color paint. I'm beginning to realize I'll never clean it all up.

My muse seems to like the dust. There is still playa dust on her skin and in her hair; her snakes look paler with a fine covering of soft dust. When she moves, you can smell the dust as it falls from her clothes. She says you have to just make peace with the dust. "It's like anything of beauty; there's always something to irritate you if you let it."

That pretty much sums up what I learned about art at Burning Man. The playa is a blank canvas and we visitors create the art that fills it. Driven by the need to feel the pulse and passion of artistic expression, we battle heat and dust storms to make it real. Then we let it go, taking only the feeling, not the actual creation, with us.

The creation is the most important part.

What did Burning Man teach me about art?

1. When art inspires, people will do anything to be a part of that art. They will stand on the playa with the wind blowing so hard the dust erases every landmark, hunting for a glimpse of the art that makes them feel alive. People want to be awe struck, inspired, shocked... Burning Man is the perfect place to build something so incredible people are dumbfounded by the fact it can even exist. But I think an artist can create something that powerful anywhere. It doesn't have to be clever or huge or expensive. It is the feeling generated by the art that people hunger for. If an artist creates with passion, focus, and an eye for beauty, then even something that fits in the palm of your hand can be breathtaking.

2. All artists are crazy. I've always suspected that, but seeing that many artists in one place getting high on shared creativity has convinced me that this is a fact. Only a crazy artist could envision something like Burning Man and make it happen.

3. Art is hard work. No matter if you make a 30 foot tall steel woman or write a poem, it takes the same amount of dedication and focus to make it exceptional. You can get lazy and still make something pretty, but will it inspire?

4. Sometimes, it's important to be tossed on your ass outside your comfort zone. In my opinion, that's the whole point of Burning Man. Sleep deprivation, extreme temperatures, dust in your eyes and lungs, constant noise and sensory overload are the norms. You can either hide in your tent, afraid of what's out there, or grab your goggles and face mask and jump in. The same is true in the comfort of  our own homes. We can keep creating the same thing over and over because it's comfortable and we've had lots of success making it, or we can push ourselves just a little to try creating something new. I'm not talking Maplethorpe extremes, I'm talking about testing your own creative powers. Only write plays? Try writing a poem. Only work with water color? Give charcoal a try.

After the Man burned on Saturday night, my friend and I watched a woman paint a picture. You might think this would be boring, but it was absolutely fascinating. She was working on a painting of a city reminiscent of Venice, with the ocean pouring through canals surrounding tall buildings of stone. It looked as if the city were being destroyed, but the scene was beautiful, filled with light and smooth edges. In the sky above the city were smiling, shining faces. The woman worked diligently with her tiny brush, stepping back and looking at the canvas before reaching forward to add more black to the edge of a building, or white to add more light. My muse stayed beside her for a long time, as if drunk on the flow of her creativity. It was magic watching this artist create her painting. She was so open and vulnerable, as if she were naked, but she offered her creative process willingly, allowing us a glimpse of what drove her to paint that image.

Of all the great art I saw, from the 30 foot dancing woman, the temple made of wood that resembled the mountains around the playa, the beautiful tropical fish statues that seemed to swim through the desert air, the laser beams cutting the night sky in starry sections, the flames dancing along a giant, steel sphere, the ball spinning and shining a thousand swirling lights beneath my feet until I felt like I was being lifted by the centrifugal force, and the glowing flowers that bloomed to life every night, this quiet moment watching the woman paint her picture affected me the most. Because that moment is the same for us all. No matter what we try to make, it comes from the exact same place.


Elizabeth said...

I need, I will -- write a short story. For a change...

Terry said...

You got it my dear. The soul of Burning Man is the creative process in action.