The Black Rock Desert is a long way from Seattle, but Burning Man's call to creatives reaches across the world and 2014 was no exception. Over 200 art pieces, many to be burned, were on display during the last week of August. The biggest were grand; Pier Group's Embrace conceptually holding the far skyline. But it was the smaller pieces, and the passion and meaning their creators put into them, which captured my heart. Three from Washington made soul deep impressions with me.
One night, my partner Ken and I took our tandem bike out on the freshly dried playa and explored. A young man flagged us down to see if we could help an artist move ladders. Stopping, we explained to him that we were just barely moving ourselves as we paused near the 20' Supreme Ultimate by Tom Woodall of Kennewick, Wash.
I wondered outloud why this artist choose to build this perfectly balanced yin and yang symbol over any other art concepts. The young man who flagged us down, Juan, suggested I ask the artist and in a few moments returned with a work-weary but cheerful middle-aged man, clearly in the grips of solving last minute scenarios.
Grabbing a small medal around his neck, Tom Woodall (Playa name The Rock) explained that he'd first connected with the symbol some 24 years ago in an open Chiang Mai market. It hadn't meant much to him at the time, but he'd held onto it throughout the years. Now an English as a Second Language teacher at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Wash., Woodall still wears the symbol every day.
This year, his fourth at Burning Man, Woodall had returned to the image, a decision that prompted him to explore its meaning through Taoism. He described his work as “solemnly inviting all to slow down, zoom out, and attune to the ineffable magnitude of present reality and its perpetual state of flux.”
As we pedaled away, an art car was collecting ladders and people. By Saturday, like tides and sun, the Yin and Yang would be transformed by flame, and Woodall, in the Burning Man leave-no-trace ethos, would pack a 55 gallon drum full of its ashes to tow from the Playa.
"I was less interested in the spectacle and more interested in creating a space for people to intimately interact." says Mason (Playa name Trixie). “Think of us there in the Nevada Desert, the banners of Playastan Crossroads snapping in the breeze, the silk glowing in the late afternoon sun, the light gilding the curves of the Pavillion and shining on the beautiful, dusty people of Black Rock City.”
Mason is a full time sculptor and installation artist, currently exhibiting at Bellingham's Whatcom County Museum and Aljoya Thornton Place in Seattle. At Burning Man, her vision proved out. Couples chose to be married, read the book created for the installation and added their own notes to the travelers log book, a symbolic gesture to the ways of the Silk Road. For us, it proved a last stop before voyaging out further into the settling darkness.
Agora of Light
At right: The Iron Monkeys in 2013 with The Guardian of Dawn.
The Iron Monkeys are a collaborative of creatives — teachers, techies, scientists and merchants —who work out of professional blacksmith, Tabasco Mills' Georgetown-based The Blacksmith Shop (TBS), where they spend their after hours dreaming, planning and building. The shop is part of Equinox Studios, home to many other artists who join the Monkeys and TBS for the monthly revelry of Georgetown's ArtWalk.
This year, the team followed up on The Guardian of Dawn with Agora of Light, a marketplace of experiences and ideas, fueled by fire among six Zen gardens at night and providing welcome shade and rest during the day. Fire and metal combined in a symmetrical ring, calling back to the ancient quest and reassurance of gathering together to take solace in the flames at night before returning to the brilliance of day.
Once all four installations in the series are complete, the team plans to bring them together into a permanent installation at a public park. For now though, watch for components of The Guardian of Dawn at Seattle public art events — especially Georgetown's Second Saturday December art walk.
There is no place like Burning Man or Black Rock City. The best, the worst, the whole damn barely-digestible thing. If you want to go, read the Survival Guide first. If you want to stay clean, pleasant and safely in bounds, stay home. Temporary, creative and a peak force of energy, Burning Man is beyond easy description — largely because the experience is so personal and self determined. Still, there is a draw to putting art on neutral Playa sand, framed only by blue sky. I will see this, and the bright, wild, imaginative mutant vehicles, theme camps and charged sound camps in my dreams until next year.
Crosscut's arts coverage is made possible through the generous support of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.