Renwick Gallery, Washington DC: No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man (in two parts, to Sept 16th 2018 and Jan. 21st 2019 respectively) plus Rolling Thunder Memorial Weekend parade, 2018
Art in America can be as big as you want, even bigger than what could fit in the Saatchi Gallery or the Tate Turbine Hall. In this respect, it helps to have a few empty deserts lying around. The art celebrated in this exhibition comes from contributors to the Burning Man festival held each year in the Nevada desert. The festival started off on a California beach in 1988, and expanded to the extent that the authorities took notice and banned it. So in many ways what this exhibition represents is the product of a post-hippy deliberation on dislocated idealism, first banished from mainstream society but then miraculously reabsorbed into it, and exhibited a mere stone’s throw from the White House no less. It is fitting that the nearest settlement to Burning Man’s new site is the town of Black Rock, which featured in the film Bad Day at Black Rock, starring Spencer Tracey and Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin, in which Tracey, a one-armed lawmaker from ‘outta town’ has come to resolve the mystery of a missing Japanese family. It’s the kind of place where the sun is meant to set early on outta towners. It’s a picture of post war disfigurement in a world which was supposed to have moved on, of isolation and ignorance of what the war was meant to have served notice on.
So when in the 1980s the Californian post-hippies came to the desert to create the festival of the Burning Man, I can imagine even the real Black Rock folk looking askance (even if the community never in real life had to keep mum about the murder of a Japanese family). If the locals had known back in the 1990s that by 2018 the festival would attract international recognition and thousands of participants, creating a massive tent city around a central iconic temple (to be burnt of course) with every form of creativity on show a few mutterings might have been heard in the local one-horse saloon. Perhaps it was like Whitby here in the UK, when weirdly dressed Goths first decided to make the town a biannual target of their attentions. I imagine the initial reaction would have been one of disdain. Whitby’s attraction as an old heritage town was its strength and what would these odd Goths do to bring abundance and plenty to the town’s tills? But now the Goth thing is mainstream, on a par with folk festivals. Like punk, what was once outside is now very much in. It became commercial.
It was by pure coincidence that when I visited the Burning Man exhibition it was also the day of ‘Rolling Thunder,’ an iconic US Memorial Weekend parade by tens of thousands of motorbikers down Constitution Avenue and around Washington’s principle estate of government. This parade, of an almost identical vintage as the Burning Man Festival, started in the 1980s as a protest by bikers who were vets of Vietnam seeking action on veteran’s rights and more government effort to locate those who were MIA – Missing In Action. What started as a protest has now become an officially approved part of the US remembrance theatre. Imagine if you will on our Remembrance Sunday after the laying of the wreaths, leather and Levi-clad motor bikers trundled down Whitehall with a police escort, perhaps with Jacob Rees-Mogg taking the salute with the flag of St George flying from his rear. Sorry, I don’t know where that came from.
What links Burning Man and Rolling Thunder? They are both iterations of a specifically American form of art. Bold statements of freedom despite being expressions of wildly different intentions. For example, from my observation, the mostly Harley Davidson-riding motorbikers were white, fat and dressed in a uniform Hell’s Angel style, flying stars and stripes and exulting in an image of rebellious American patriotism topped off with Prussian style skull hugging helmets. I didn’t see the Confederacy flag on the parade, but there were one or two about town afterwards. Perhaps in an ironic gesture the parade did have one black participant riding along on a scooter, with a fag between his lips and wearing no Prussian or other helmet at all. The bikers’ exercise of free expression is, regardless of its origins and purpose a representation of the principle that there there’ll be no holds barred. And then lo and behold it becomes officially approved and is given a police escort as big and noisy as the parade itself. I am sure that many of the bikers believe in Trump’s slogan – ‘Make America (sic) Great Again.’
Would the same ambition be true of the Burning Man artists? There was some incredible artwork on display at the Renwick. By which I mean stunning. I haven’t seen the like before, and because Burning Man’s core principle is participation, it’s artworks invite well, errr . . audience participation. Just as the bikers have principles (like man, the right to ride), the Burning Man festival has its principles too. How different would these be to those of the bikers? Burning Man’s are radical inclusion; gifting; decommodification; radical self-reliance; radical self-expression; communal effort; civic responsibility; leaving no trace; participation; immediacy. Well, possibly some of this could be the creed of the bikers, a code d’honneur if you will, although when it comes to ‘leaving with no trace’ they wouldn’t want those MIA to be left without trace, and the sheer racket of the Harleys takes a while to get out of the head.