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Looking toward the setting sun the sky was blindingly bright due to the abundant suspended dust. A constant ground hugging haze from human activity was spread across the entire tent city, forming a bright pale yellow horizon line under the sun. Denser plumes and sheets of the brilliant golden lit powder paraded against the western mountains. Soon the sun reached their crests and the immediate surroundings began to dim. Shortly the sunlight faded altogether from the foreground, with the remaining sunlit playa restricted to a narrowing distant band along the east. The mountains beyond remained sunlit for quite a while and the breeze steadily cooled the surroundings. The sky was brilliant blue with just a hint of the Tahoe 'Star' fire still visible to the south, and the gibbous moon brightly adorned the southern sky. People and vehicles tended to converge on the Man around this time, and while watching them come and go with tiny examples of the same thing dotting the horizon I began to appreciate the size of this event. I turned and gazed outwards seeing three quarters of the horizon beyond the flatness lined by tents, towers, domes, and many non-standard shapes over a ground cover of personal tents and parked vehicles.
That night was the first to really shine with the glare of thousands of camps. The brighter lights glowed through the dust around them, often with pastel colors to paint the night with a magical radiance. It looked almost like the fog I had seen a few nights earlier, but only from a distance. Higher in the sky the Moon shone down, its pale light casting shadows between the lit campsites more strongly each night. This year the entire event was naturally well lit and made carrying a flashlight at night less necessary to avoid being hit by wayward bicyclists.
Several scraps of higher cloud drifted by the
Moon, casting shadows on a thin layer of smoke evidently covering
much of the sky at a lower altitude. The shadows tended to appear
as radial dark streaks which steadily moved on, always aligned
with the clouds and the Moon. A wide fluctuating brightess around
the Moon itself was due to lower altitude dust, and this aureole
often revealed the differing density of the dust as it rolled
past. This moon brightened dust tended to appear a pale light
green, brightening night to night as the lunar phase approached
Wednesday I woke up knowing I was getting
better. Inspecting the surroundings it was evident the remaining
empty spaces between tent clusters were going fast. One fellow
asked if we had any extra tent stakes. Fortunately, I happened
to bring along a bag of stakes from my last tent and was happy
to be helpful. They later shared food and drink with us, and in
fact we had excellent relations with all those nearby. Steadily
the entire line of sight to the nearby roads was being blocked
by other tents and vehicles springing up nearby, something I was
counting on. In theory it was good to preserve a way
out for your vehicle while trying to discourage random foot traffic
from the camp itself. After periodically buying ice we would pour
the melt water from the cooler into a large basin for some washing
uses. As we dirtied that water it would be poured onto a selected
small depression or wide crack near a vehicle, placed so nobody
would slip on it while muddy.
In the distance a car horn was being jabbed, then leaned on, then pounded again in short bursts, on and on as if someone was being driven crazy in a dense traffic jam. This was the first day I really felt the event was intensifying to familiar levels. The gusty periodic winds never rose to the gales which endangered tents and sent lawn chairs flying such as during that terrible storm last year, but the visibility was often interrupted as dust was plentifully carried along. There were a couple para-gliders whose pilots were seated in front of caged propellers, leisurely buzzing the event back and forth during quieter periods.
Several works from previous years were in evidence, notably the stunning Taj Mahal like box covered with translucent plastic toys lit from within. This was used as a functional chapel and indeed many people were married within its colorful walls during the week. In the distance a mortar discharged a yellow gasoline fireball which formed a perfect thin black smoke ring. The conditions were just right and I periodically stopped and admired its longevity with increasing astonishment. Five minutes passed and it continued to hang like an abstract sculpture in the sky, lazily distorting at last but of constant width.
I later read of isolated events which pushed the boundary of mischief into assault. In one case a trio of people were working a large slingshot which launched water soaked huggable toys at passers by. Most people found a spray of water spraying from something they tried to catch a welcome thing in the heat. One teddy bear loudly splatted against a small car, perhaps raising concerns about denting the door. The driver got out and first yelled at then chased the perpetrators away on their bicycles with a shovel! One hapless person leaving a porta-potty was smacked with a pie in the face by a randomly passing bicyclist.
This day began a trend of cloudy
weather looming along the north west horizon which by the afternoon
began retreating and dissolving. Getting away from everything
to glimpse the enormity of it all is fun, especially as the last
'Magic Hour' of sunlight is passing. Some of the time the sun
is behind a group of small but dense clouds exhibiting blindingly
brilliant golden edges. Even if you were not paying attention
to the coming of sunset the change in the sound background lets
you know something is up. The drumming becomes more energetic,
people vocalize and clap, and the mood is of enjoyment of the
now, appreciation of the beauty around us. It is also the start
of the night life under which Black Rock City especially thrives.
The shadows around me showed rapidly reducing contrast, and the
sunlit surroundings quickly retreated eastwards into an indefinitely
bordered bright zone quickly gathering itself towards the distant
sunlit mountains. The neon lights on the man were lit for the
first time that I saw by sunset, accompanied by cheers from those
nearby. The wind came and went but the temperature by then was
just right for walking about.
The lights people brought truly asserted themselves this evening. Neon tubing and luminescent wire adorned many structures along the vast inner circle, with especially bright centers here and there suggesting miniature zany variations of Las Vegas. A very tall pyramid like outline of green lights were strung along three support cables holding up a tall tower. Periodically a brighter column of lights shot upward from the vertical towers base, then withdrew again like a high speed version of a liquid thermometer in action. This turned out to be activated by people testing their vocal loudness by shouting into a microphone, the sound levels attained appearing as the height reached by the column of brighter lights. It was like a high tech version of the old carnival strength test which used a sledge hammer to hurl a weight up a vertical track towards a bell only the strongest could reach. In the case of this interactive work those with higher pitched voices seemed to register better, so women invariably were the ones to make the column of lights reach the top.
Another enchanting art object nearby rang out loud metallic musical notes as a crowd of people stretching their arms surrounded it. Once I joined the inner circle I saw people's fingers 'strumming' many parallel red laser beams within a metal framework, each interrupted beam causing a sensor to sound a note. It was a harp with strings of light! The 'strands' were made constantly visible by the ambient dust. Animated cartoons of kangaroos hopping about played repeatedly from an array of electro-luminescent wires mounted on two bicycles, complete with a 'boink' sound during the bounces on the ground. A mother and smaller baby kangaroo appeared on the bikes. Many of the elaborate art cars seemed to be designed for their night appearences due to varied lighting methods lavished on them. An apparently discarded freshly activated bright glow stick lay relatively isolated on the ground until people tried to pick it up, when someone in a nearby tower jerked the dark string and moved the 'bait' along. Crowds and individules wandered in all directions among each other in the darkness. The shimmering pulsing carpet of living energy wrapped itself around the distant windy night.
3. Black Rock City at its peak.
was the day to begin trying to see as much as possible, and I
walked several miles trying to do just that. Fortunately the temperature
had cooled down a bit from previous days, and my cold was over.
No matter where you headed the experience was much the same in
the sense of many small things catching the eye and a few larger
marvels appearing in the distance one would make pilgrimages to.
A lot of the artistic statements I saw as I walked around were
humorous, a few political, and here and there were beautiful surprises.
In many cases effort was made to ridicule or otherwise defy corporate
presences, such as a large rental truck's logo altered with tape
of colors matching the paint to make a ribaldly parodying statement.
Another truck was covered with a fabric banner mimicking that
of a national campground chain, with the letters 'AOK' used around
a version of the 'Burning Man' logo.
I decided by Thursday afternoon the event was going strong and not in obvious decline. By then the apparent extent of both the quality and amount of the participation was in evidence. It looked like the percentage of people who brought impressive things to look at and play with had increased somewhat over last year. Every other camp had a kind of visual 'hurrah' to share. All one had to do was simply exist there to see fantastic things, and people were in a receptive mood for the extraordinary. Randomness itself seemed to be responding to the mindset of the participants. I wanted to immerse myself in it all and see as much as possible, but I used my cameras overall less than in previous years. The first Burning Man of the 21st century was going well for me.
As soon as I left my campsite I
would use a nearby very tall conical tent as a landmark, which
continued to stand out above the many waving colorful banners
and taller spires. Of course the streets were well labeled but
one had to be near the intersections to read the signs. For a
while one could navigate between camps innocuously, however the
streets became the main routes later on as the density increased
in the inner sections. Of course in the outer regions there was
still lots of room, and a good showing of tall elaborate constructions,
but things were spread out over greater distances. In some ways
the 'quality of life' out there might be better than closer in.
Any given outer region could almost be considered as one of several
zones of events of the density of those of a decade ago encircling
a concentrated super event immediately around the Man. It was
always magnificent to enter the inner largely vacant zone and
stand among this or that art object and see the horizon to horizon
circus stretching far beyond.
Several major works were placed along the central axis of the event, and a few were only finished days into the event. The 'Mausoleum' was one of these I watched as it was finished, then as it matured. From a distance it appeared very much like a vertically stretched Japanese pagoda style building, but the closer one got the more astounding it was to behold. Many walls were fabricated from panels with so many small parts cut from them that they were essentially screens. You could see the blue sky through the ceilings of the shaded chambers which looped around a smaller central shrine. In this small room an intricately cut open casket like container was filled with many wooden blocks. This was, as the artist Dave Best stated in talks to the assembled admirers, the shrine dedicated to those who took their own lives. This sincere talented individual poured out his heart to the people and referred to the building as becoming a 'Temple Of Tears', and spoke of things that help and enrich us such as that person who was there for us when we really needed them. He set the tone for the emotional reaction people would have later which ultimately was to become the finishing touch to this profoundly interactive art object.
There is a hushed behavior from
many in the temple itself, but people occasionally play music
in and around it. Walking inside, the outline of the doorways
remind me of some alien patterns seen in electron microscope images.
Branches, sharp horn like projections, and thin columns looking
like mutated insect legs extend in odd angles from walls and join
the ceiling. The structure seems in the act of turning into something
between insectoid and convoluted coral shapes. Once inside, the
walls are seen to be in two layers with piles of wood scrap packed
between them. There is a high ceiling with chandeliers of thin
wood sheeting hanging from them, past which several layers of
ceiling above still allow significant amounts of blue sky to show
through. The wind is stopped little by the porous structure, and
even gusts do not budge the walls. Dust clouds are seen within
the temple as a kind of powdery fog appearing and disappearing
in irregular episodes. The overall impression is of an Indian
Jain temple, or perhaps a Hindu-inspired study in intricacy. There
are places to sit inside, and already many people have written
things on walls with little pencils provided inside. Looking again
at the central shrine on my way out, I notice most of the wooden
blocks inside the open trunk like container already have names
and brief messages penciled on them. At the doors of the structure
on the way out one sees stretching ahead the long dusty central
road stretching out to the Man and beyond, on which many people
are moving about on bikes and on foot. A kind of courtyard extends
from the open front of the Mausoleum, defined by crazily mutated
totem poles and urn like boxes fashioned from the same complexly
cut wood pieces. Somehow the contrast between the intricately
cut out containers and the randomly sized small blocks piled inside
them was thought provoking, inviting the comparison of raw matter
and organized life made from the same elements. Stepping back
and examining the overall structure, the slightly sloping box
of the lower floor supports a steep roof which in turn lofts a
tall spire above everything else, its thin tip slicing through
the persistent breeze.
I was to visit it often and marvel at this creation, as profound a work of art as anything I have ever seen.
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