Exhibit of the week
No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man
Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C., through January 2019
“Is Burning Man the world’s most ambitious art program?” asked Jessica Klingelfuss in Wallpaper.com. The summer festival that began in 1986 as an impromptu happening on a San Francisco beach “has mutated in extraordinary ways,” moving to the Nevada desert in 1990 and growing into a weeklong bacchanal. Each year it erects and disassembles a whimsical temporary city of 70,000, charges $450 per ticket, draws celebrities and the Bay Area’s tech elite, and burns a 40-foot-tall human effigy amid a swirl of drugs, sex, electronic dance music, and nudity. Burning Man is also always an assemblage of totemic sculpture and fantastic desert vehicles—often luminescent, usually destined for destruction, and never burdened with a “Do not touch” sign. But can the art cast the same spell inside the country’s oldest purpose-built art museum? The new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s ornate Renwick Gallery represents “perhaps the most confident bid yet to prove that it can.”
To enter the show is to leave Washington behind, said Michael O’Sullivan in The Washington Post. A processional arch, designed by two festival regulars and covered with eccentric bric-a-brac, “seems to whisper as you pass through, ‘Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’” Ahead lies Shrumen Lumen, a “Lewis Carroll–esque” collection of giant, multicolor mushrooms created by the FoldHaus art collective for 2016’s Burning Man. Marco Cochrane’s Truth Is Beauty, a towering dancing female nude—18 feet tall here as opposed to the 2015 original, which is roughly three times bigger and once nearly made a temporary appearance on the National Mall. On the streets outside the museum, the city’s familiar memorials temporarily have competition from Mischell Riley’s cement bust of Maya Angelou, a flock of giant bronze crows cast by Jack Champion, and XOXO, Laura Kimpton and Jeff Schomberg’s “cheeky riff” on Robert Indiana’s iconic Love sculpture. It isn’t quite Burning Man East, but it’s a breath of fresh air.
Wisely, the show “doesn’t try to be about Burning Man; it aims simply to evoke what it’s like to interact with the festival’s art,” said James Tarmy in Bloomberg.com. Not every piece succeeds in the new context: A customized cinema-in-a-bus by Five Ton Crane Arts Collective seems, once parked indoors, “like something you would find in the lobby of a suburban movie theater.” Yet, as curator Nora Atkinson points out, these are works meant to be appreciated for their craftsmanship and whimsy, not their lasting significance. For all those people who’ll never “experience the fun of actually attending Burning Man, ‘No Spectators’ is an excellent next-best thing.”