The Art Of Burning Man Debuts At Cincinnati Art Museum

Apr 26, 2019

A much-anticipated exhibit exploring the art and ethos of an annual gathering in the Nevada desert opens Friday at the Cincinnati Art Museum. No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man offers a glimpse inside this whimsical world of "collective dreaming."

For one week at the end of summer, seven square miles of dusty playa transform into the third-largest city in Nevada with 70,000 participants. At this experiment in community and artistic self expression, things aren't bought or sold, rather traded or shared, and art springs from the freedom to explore your creative mind.

"This is a bold and crazy move for [the Cincinnati Art Museum] to do, but it's absolutely terrific," says David J. Brown, the museum's curator of special projects.

"Why should it be in the art museum? The event and the culture surrounding Burning Man is something that is very much a part of America and who we are as creative citizens of the world."

Children get an early look at "Shrumen Lumen" during a school tour. These corrugated plastic mushrooms expand and contract when someone stands on an activation pad.
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU

No Spectators isn't confined to a single space. Instead, it's woven throughout the museum, each piece thoughtfully placed to highlight it or in juxtaposition with something from the museum's traditional collection.

"We don't have any signage that says this, but our hope is that people may be able to pick that up intuitively," Brown says.

Take Truth Is Beauty by artist Marco Cochrane, who wondered after a friend was abducted and assaulted what kind of world this would be if women felt safe to express themselves freely. An 18-foot nude woman sculpted from mesh and stainless steel reaches toward the sky in an elegant dancer's pose. She's flanked by Tiffany stained glass windows and Edgar Degas ballerinas.

The work is a one-third model of the 55-foot tall version displayed in the desert at Burning Man.

Some pieces in the show are from Burning Man, others were created by Burning Man artists, and some are commissioned works that will eventually find their way to the desert like Capitol Theater by a group of more than 150 artists called Five Ton Crane. It's what's known fondly as a "mutant vehicle."

Five Ton Crane, "Capitol Theater," 2018.
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU

(Traditional cars aren't allowed on the Nevada playa so you get around on tricked-out bicycles and motorized creations called art cars or mutant vehicles.)

"It's kind of a hybrid trolley/open air movie theater," Brown explains. "It includes six hilarious black and white films, 12 theater seats... walk up the stairs [and] there's a concession stand in the back."

Attention to detail is in everything from the snacks in the concession stand to the peacock filigree steps, original movies and custom music. Even the docents have been trained as ticket takers with an attitude befitting the artwork.
 

Part of a gamelatron created by artist Aaron Taylor Kuffner. Robotics control these bronze bells, filling the air with soothing chimes.
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU

Nearby, the sounds of gamelan beckon visitors. Thirty-two bronze bells arranged on tree-like sculptures create a kinetic soundscape. Artist Aaron Taylor Kuffner has created multiple Gamelatrons. This one includes 10 hours of music, including three pieces composed for the Cincinnati Art Museum.

"He has done things like check with Google metrics to figure out the most visited hours and days of the week for visitors to experience the work in Cincinnati and has programed the works accordingly," Brown explains as the low hum of chimes fill the air. "If you were to walk in early on a Tuesday morning it's going to be very soft and quiet. It never gets really loud."

No Spectators is an immersive experience meant to be absorbed and touched. In a darkened gallery, school kids gaze at floor-to-ceiling illuminated psychedelic mushrooms created from corrugated plastic. The Shrumen Lumens expand and contract when you step on the activation pad. Look closely and you'll see traces of desert sand clinging to the glowing mushrooms.

The exhibit includes a special collection from the Nevada Museum of Art called City of Dust comprised of pictures, pamphlets, documents, drawings and artifacts collected from the desert floor, all telling the history of the 33-year-old event.

"I think that people will gain a very good understanding of what Burning Man is all about," Brown concludes.

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man opens in two phases, April 25 and June 7, and runs through September 2, 2019.