Benjamin2009-09-16
Part IV: Holy Crap! Shiny!

Note: As I mentioned in part one, I tried not to take very many photos. I knew that among the 43,000 other participants, someone else would have a better camera and might even be a better photographer. So I apologize for breaking up the flow here with tons of little \"Photo by X\" notes, but it\'s super important to credit these folks as I haven\'t asked permission form them.

The Temple and the Man were the two big name tickets at Burning Man, obviously, and I put them into the category of \"Pure Beauty\". However they are both on the verge (the Man more so) of another of my private categories, \"Shiny!\". I think that this is an entirely valid type of art, and that a work that exists merely to say, \"Holy Crap!\" is a perfectly worthwhile piece of art. Keep in mind, of course, that I really like Jeff Koons. Nevertheless, I felt that there were a bit too many of these pieces at Burning Man. Not because the weren\'t valid, but simply because each one diminished the others. When I arrived on Saturday, there were two or three converted tour buses that had been loaded with neon, and they just blew me away. A week later and there were so many of them that I literally could not see Black Rock City--not a single landmark was distinguishable from amidst the faceless sea of neon art cars.

The desert was full of pieces that, if on display in Chicago, would have a line around the block as the whole population came to view them. And yet, by comparison to the Man they merited only a casual, \"neat!\". No one could possibly build another Man, but a lot of people tried essentially to build him to half scale. While impressive, to be sure, this effort was largely doomed.

The folks who gave it their best shot, however, were undoubtedly the ones who built the Rocket Ship. The Raygun Gothic Rocket Ship was a forty-foot tall classic rocket made out of plate steel, and burnished to a beautiful shine under the desert sun. It had three floors, which were all accessible to the public via ladders (and a long, long line). There was a DJ booth on one floor, and an \"Atomic Toaster\" on another. It was fairly close to the Man in the center of the desert, and when the desert winds raised enough dust the perennial wit would observe that it had \"finally blasted off\". (Photo by me!)

They actually scheduled a lift off event for Friday night, and it really should have been a success. It began with a deafening air siren, that drowned everything out for a mile and made everyone wonder if the authorities were warning us of something (until we remembered that this was Burning Man, and we were our own authorities, and Larry Harvey, Crimson Rose, et al. wouldn\'t warn us about a damn thing). This was followed by Fourth of July caliber fireworks (although the show only lasted for three or four minutes, they were very well done and very large) and then a series of the most enormous explosions that I\'ve ever seen. These fireballs went at least ten feet in the air, and who knows who far across. What\'s more, they had used some incredible science tricks to color the fire itself--it wasn\'t \"fire red\", it was \"fire engine red\", followed by an aquamarine blast, an emerald blast, and one that was bright yellow. All in all, it really should have been a satisfying spectacle.

However. First of all, there was another crazy white-out, and the had to postpone everything because the fireballs would literally have gone unnoticed. And then they continued to hold off, even after the dust subsided, for another two hours, until everyone who had been patiently waiting had decided that it would either be \"The Second Coming\" or \"A Bullshit Letdown\". But their real downfall was that in the Schedule, they had listed the event as \"The Rocketship Lifts off!\". I mean, we weren\'t dumb, and everyone knew that they weren\'t going to fly the thing to the moon or whatever, but this was Burning Man and if you claim that your rocket ship is going to \"lift off\" people expect that it will raise up into the air at least a few meters. Or, at the very least it seems possible that it could (remind me to tell you about the Daft Punk concert, sometime).

So by the time they were ready to fire off their big light show, the expectations had risen to \"The Second Coming and a Flying Rocket Ship\" or else \"Bullshit Letdown Waste of Time\" levels. The light show was incredible, but not incredible enough. They tried their hardest to do \"Holy Crap! Shiny!\" better than anyone else, and they didn\'t do a bad job. But it couldn\'t really compete with everything else.

Other people did cool stuff with interactivity and scale. There was a giant tree sculpture, bent in half so that it touched the ground of two points and somehow also representing dendrites in the brain. It was bright silver and covered in blinking lights--\"Shiny!\" if anything was. It was also, of course, on fire. It had twin spheres of fire, each one made by rotating flaming double rings around each other until persistence of vision took over. Finally, there were a series of pewter dials in the shape of brains, and a series of big, inviting buttons. Each dial controlled... something, and each button triggered... some event. But often the button would send a gout of flame shooting out of the opposite side of the piece, at a height determined by a dial four feet away, so it took a lot of experimentation for figure out how to work the Art. I liked that piece, but it never really went beyond \"Holy Crap!\".
Finally, there were a bunch of variations on the large, elaborate, cool sculptures that also, of course, breathed fire. There was a giant bug-thing with mastodon horns and a row of flaming torches down its back. There was a metal viking longboat with an articulated dragon head (controlled by the driver) that drove around the desert. It also shot flames. There was a fifteen-foot-tall impressionistic sculpture of a woman, her hair streaming down and her hands lifted up, all made out of slightly rusted iron scraps. I didn\'t bother to see it myself, but I\'m told that she could shoot fire out of her hands, as well. (Photo by Don Bitters)

Now I do not wish to malign the Iron Woman (perhaps the piece was really called \"The Goddess\", I\'m not sure)--it truly was a magnificent sculpture. Even disregarding the fire (which I never actually saw) it\'s the kind of sculptural piece that even a city like Chicago would be proud to display out in front of the MCA. It would draw crowds in Chicago, and there are more than a few state capitals for whom it might well become a fixture on license plates and stamps, if it had been displayed there. At Burning Man, however, it was worth a look in the daytime, but not necessarily the trip back out to see at night. It was just another shiny thing.

There was also a twelve-foot tall bronze giraffe that suffered much the same fate--it was hooked to a fuel line, so I can only assume that it was a fire-breathing giraffe after dark. I never went back to check, though. And then there was the enormous Tree Of Skulls, which is just what it sounds like and impressed me to no end on my very first day (before most everything else had been constructed yet). As near as I can tell, it\'s one gimmick was that it did not breathe fire. Actually, I managed to get a really awesome photograph of that piece, so I have a soft spot for it and might really classify it as \"Pure Beauty\" rather than merely \"Ohh, Shiny!\". (Photo by me, for once!)



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