Benjamin2009-09-16
Part II: The Man

Photo by siberfi
Well, I\'ll start with The Man. A twenty-foot-tall stick figure, the Man stood on a twenty-foot-tall platform. It was made entirely out of two-by-fours, but it looked like a huge thorn bush (and was referred to as the \"Tangled Bank\", referencing The Origin of Species), with the Man standing proudly on top. At night he was outlined by white and yellow neon, and there was a tiny red neon sculpture of a monkey (for the theme was Evolution this year) on his chest.

The whole time I was there, the Man stood watch over us all, the tallest thing around (more or less) and glowing at night. Occupying the precise center of the circle as it did, we used the Man as a way to get our bearings, when we could. Occaisionally the dust storms would obscure him from sight entirely (occaisionally they would obscure everything from sight, leaving a view of less than three feet!) and some wit would remark that he had been stolen, or had escaped the burning this year. But for the most part he was a constant guide.
(Photo by cookinghamus)

On the night of the burn, Saturday night, there was a really fearsome dust storm and everyone was worried. The storm had been so bad in 2008 that they had cancelled the ceremony--they just waited around for a break in the wind, and then set it ablaze as soon as they could. Skipping the ceremony was a big deal: fire dancers from all over the world had auditioned for a spot on the Fire Conclave (the performing group of around 1,200 of the best dancers) and then spent the year practicing for that one night. Everyone was sincerely hoping that it would not get canceled again.)

We left for the spot where we had last seen the Man in a group of six. We were all wearing glow sticks and electroluminescent wire, which allowed the last person in line to barely make out the glow from the first person--apart from that the dust had erased every other sight. After walking what felt like the right distance in what we hoped was the correct direction, a huge art car loomed out of the dust, its giant neon panels the only visible indication that it was there, and we worried that we\'d gone off course.

This bus was a peculiar project in its own right: some group of artists had pooled their resources together over the previous year and bought a city bus. Then they had spent months equipping it with giant neon panels--like the LCDs on a digital watch, each panel could be configured to display any letter or number. Unlike a digital watch, each panel was brightly colored (red, blue, yellow and green) and over seven feet tall. For reasons that remain entirely opaque to me, the artists had then driven it all the way to Burning Man only to have it spell out bizarre pornographic messages, completely without context. The first night the LCD panels displayed \"FACEFUCK\" in letters seven feet high. Another night it spelled out \"BALLS DEEP\". This is all it did, and I never found out why. On this particular evening, the bus spelled out \"BUKAKE?\" That final question mark haunts me to this day.

At any rate, we were lost in the desert, able to see only a few feet in any direction and confronted by perplexing pornographic pronouncements. Things looked bleak, until the bus pulled away and reveled the Man, standing just behind. We quickly moved in and got a good seat, four or five rows from the outer ring of the Man. This ring was patrolled by brawny fellows in firefighters\' jackets, because before long things were about to get very hot and then fall over. Burning Man prides itself on having very few rules indeed, but even still you are not allowed to immolate yourself in the Man.

There was a little bit of drama in out section of the crowd as we tried to convince a few folks to sit--some people seemed unable to grasp the notion that although their own view was improved by standing, a few hundred people behind them could no longer see anything. I hate those people. One fellow in particular remained obstinantly upright regardless of our pleas until a stalwart fellow from Siberia stood up himself, facing the miscreant, to give him a taste. This Siberian was taller than his target by at least a foot and a half, and the man\'s view was now reduced to a few feet of Slavic chest. Rather well-muscled chest, I might add--after this he mumbled something and slunk off. I handed the Siberian hero the rest of my absinthe, which he seemed to appreciate.

By this point the wind had finally subsided, and it became clear that visibility would be damned near perfect throughout the rest of the evening. At some signal that I couldn\'t see, the Fire Conclave filed into the ring around the Man, fire burning in every imaginable way that fire can burn. Or, rather, the fire was burning the way fire always burns, but it was coming from devices of every imaginable construction. There were over twelve hundred dancers, so no one was actually able to see the majority of the performance. One friend of mine told me later that on her side of the Man the dancers were all in mermaid costumes, with endless plumes of fire jetting from the tips of their tails. Another friend said that from where he was sitting he got to see an enormous dragon puppet, made of fire and breathing fire, like an Indonesian shadow puppet (except ten feet high and burning). Because he was downwind, he also got to see what one gets when one mixes dust devils and massive amount of fire--swirling Fire Tornadoes that shot out towards the audience at various points. I was a bit jealous of his vantage point, except for the fact that the dust and smoke also shot out towards them throughout. Also, Fire Tornadoes.

On our side the dancers used an astonishing array of implements, all of which were coated in flame. The used the traditional fire staff and fire poi, of course, but they also swung strands of burning rope in amazing patterns, and wielded honest-to-goodness flaming swords. There was at least one fellow with a burning candelabra attached to his head, and a whole line of women with claws made of flame. I remember seeing three men vaulting over a line of fire dancers to breathe out jets of flame in perfect unison.

After quite a while the dancers finished, and then there were a few minutes of breathless anticipation. Suddenly the base was lit by strobe lights, and fireworks exploded overhead. Somewhere in all of that the man had raised his arms to the sky, and as his legs caught fire he began to shoot even more fireworks out of his hands. A little while later the base itself exploded into flame.

Crimson Rose, who is essentially Burning Man\'s Art Director, had made a small joke here. Historically the base is lit first, and then it catches the Man on fire. After all, up through 1998 they were still lighting hay bales with matches, so that was the only possibility. This year, in defiance of expectations, the Man lit up first and then the base he was standing on. And I can guarantee that no matches were used.

The Man burned. It burned and it burned. Traditionally the crowd waits until the Man has finally had enough and topples over before ceremonially running around the inner ring like crazy people. This year, however (presumably because they were messing with things by lighting the platform secondarily) the Man simply would not fall. His head burned away, and one arm fell off, but the rest continued to stay overengineered and upright for a long time. Every so often a few last fireworks would shoot out, but after those stopped the firefighters decided that it was as safe as it would get and let us begin the tradition of running twice around the Man.

The first lap wasn\'t too hard, because there were a ton of people there who had never considered rushing him at the massive inferno of flame. After circling the remains once, however, things got a little dicey. The Tourists had screwed up their courage and taken a few steps forward to get better photographs. It still hadn\'t occurred to them that people were trying to run around the Man, so they assumed that we were all trying to get even better snapshots and took a few more steps forward. By the time I had returned again to my starting place, the remaining runners were getting pushed en mass rather disturbingly toward the flames by a crowd of angry photographers.

At that point some observant person said, \"Look, weren\'t the legs a bit closer together a few minutes ago?\" and we all looked and, sure enough, there had been a change to the still-burning remains. Everyone slowly backed up a few paces. Three minutes later, ever so gradually, the left left tipped a little bit farther away, and then farther, and the with a crash it pulled the rest of the sculpture to the ground. The Man had burned, and I stumbled out to find a drink somewhere.

The next day I went back to scrounge in the remains with the rest of the memento-seekers, and the whole area looked like the site of a tiny little war. Ash covered everything, and the embers were still far too hot to approach. A couple folks threw a fresh board into the middle of one ash pit, and before long there was a merry fire again--twelve hours had passed, and it was still impressively hot. However, the majority of the site had cooled off and I was able to find a few pieces of melted, twisted metal that had once been nails, and some glass that had shattered and then re-fused with itself. I also found a cool black thing that I think was molten sand, turned to rough glass by the heat of the fire. I plan to give that to Cat, although it doesn\'t look quite as cool as it sounds, I fear.

So what did it all mean? Well, the exact significance of the Man is one of the many mysteries of the Festival. This is a deliberate choice, to encourage everyone to develop their own interpretations. The first Man was a eight-foot-tall sculpture that Larry Harvey lit on fire one night on a San Francisco beach. It was originally intended as a one-off solstice ceremony (presumably riffing on the Wicker Man idea) but just as the Man caught fire, and just before it became a full inferno, Harvey saw a young woman climb up to it, gazing soulfully, and take it by the hand before fleeing to safety. This image was so startling to him that he decided that the image was more potent than he had realized, and resolved to explore it in greater depth.

One obvious interpretation is, of course, the Man--modern capitalist society, putting you down and suppressing you with its rule and its money and its materialism. The is certainly a good thing to burn down, no doubt. For me, however, the image is too triumphant for that, arms raised in victory even as the flames begin to spread. For me, the Man represents the Artist, subsumed in his own Creation, and the Burn represents the goal of the Artist. To devote yourself so completely to Truth and Beauty, to create an experience of the profound. If creating such an experience results in the sacrifice of your own life, in being consumed along with the rest, that is surely a small price to pay, and a cause for celebration. And of course it needn\'t be death by fire--Artists regularly sacrifice themselves in the pyres of poverty and isolation. The burning of the Man claims that, if you are willing to give enough of yourself, true beauty is possible.

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