Hit It Big With Your Art at Burning Man?


A year ago, in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, Brooklyn artist Mike Ross achieved rock-star status at Burning Man. He and his volunteer crew, after months of preparation, hoisted two 18-wheel fuel trucks into the air—welded together with 50,000 pounds of steel—and rigged them vertically into a base plate in the ground. The result was Big Rig Jig, an enormous 42-foot-high sculpture that dwarfed the other art at the festival and managed to look tough as nails and poetic at the same time.

The New York Times, Wired, and CBS covered Big Rig Jig. Burners showered Ross with accolades, and he returned the favor by letting them climb all over—and up inside—the trucks. Ross and his crew were greeted throughout the huge desert encampment with free beer, free food, and complimentary Ecstasy tablets.

As 50,000 or more people flock to the desert this week to see the latest creations on display at the 2008 festival, one wonders: What happens to these artists and their artwork after Burning Man? The answer: Ross and other big-sculpture artists have been parlaying their desert glory into mainstream sculpture gigs at museums, public buildings, and city parks. But there’s been a catch: While anything goes for these artists at Burning Man, back in the real world, things get much trickier.

Wide media acclaim for Big Rig Jig led officials in Seattle to commission Ross for a new piece: They gave him $560,000 to create a sculpture for a new light-rail terminal in its eclectic Capitol Hill neighborhood. Ross’s idea was pure Burning Man: Take two decommissioned fighter planes, paint them pink, section them into pieces, align them in a graceful kissing pose, and hang them high in the air—in this case, right above the terminal where passengers would be walking.

But his “kissing planes” idea didn’t go over well at a community meeting. One man told a local TV crew that when Ross mentioned the war planes, he became “quite shocked, and surprised, and pretty angry, actually.” The backlash spread quickly. Seattle blog forums dissed the project. Local Democrats went so far as to pass a resolution protesting Ross’s idea. Ross was crushed: “I definitely didn’t expect to get resistance from left-wing political activists,” he says, slightly bewildered.

By contrast, Manhattan-based artist Kate Raudenbush was able to get Guardianof Eden—her 19-foot-tall, illuminated, lotus-shaped 2007 Burning Man sculpture—on permanent display at the Nevada Museum of Art pretty easily. The museum e-mailed her, said her piece was amazing, and asked for it. “I said: ‘Hell, yeah,’ ” she laughs. Hers was the first Burning Man sculpture to go straight from the playa to a permanent residency. It was also the first time the museum had to wash desert dust off an art piece before displaying it.

Raudenbush’s gig with the city of Redwood, California, however, hasn’t gone as smoothly. Guardian of Eden proved her ability to make big, illuminated sculptures, so city officials granted her $50,000 to install a nine-foot-tall illuminated fountain there. Her designs are ready, but the city isn’t: Since last fall, city-council members have haggled over the fountain’s dimensions, what materials to use, how to light it, etc. The experience has been a little jarring for the 35-year-old artist.

“There are so many cooks in the kitchen,” she says. “If you have one person in charge who’s an art champion, you get some cool stuff in cool places. But without that connection, you have a tougher time putting public art out there.”

Burning Man’s Black Rock Arts Foundation aims to be that connection. Through various initiatives and grants ranging from a few thousand dollars to $20,000 or more, the San Francisco nonprofit has helped get big, interactive art on temporary and permanent display in the Bay Area, Detroit, and cities abroad such as Beijing, Cape Town, and London.

After Peter Hudson’s Burning Man art pieces appeared in Time magazine and the Burning Man documentary Gifting It, the foundation helped get his immense 2007 Burning Man zoetrope—featuring 18 life-sized monkeys—on display this spring at the Children’s Discovery Museum Park in San José, California. Assuming people might be confused by an army of swinging, smiling monkeys, the foundation hired 180 volunteers to answer questions from passersby. “In the desert, people don’t need explanations,” says Tomas McCabe, the foundation’s interim managing director. “But in the real world, everything needs to be explained. It takes time for people to get it.”

Manhattan-based artist Leo Villareal helps people “get it” by using his position on the foundation’s advisory board to help other Burning Man artists see their art in public spaces. Over the years, Villareal has waded through some bureaucratic waters himself.

After making his first Burning Man piece—a strobe-light device to keep him from getting lost in the desert—he earned a rep for creating elaborate sequenced-light displays. A few years ago, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center asked Villareal to temporarily install 640 pattern-forming LEDs on the side of its building in Long Island City. The project took a year and a half of public presentations and fundraising to pull off. “You do what you do to make the piece,” Villareal says matter-of-factly. The effort paid off elsewhere: He was given a commission of more than $100,000 in Kansas, where he has recently installed 12,000 sequenced lights at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.

Back in Seattle, Mike Ross’s luck has now changed. After many more community meetings, locals have slowly gotten used to his fighter-planes idea. Ross polished up his pitch and made a few design tweaks, softening some of the edges. “This is the playing field,” he says. “You just analyze that playing field and get it done.”

What might the future hold for 2008 Burning Man art like SOL, a 25-foot-tall, solar-powered robot, or the participatory Flamethrower Shooting Gallery? Who knows. Just don’t expect this year’s Garden and Grotto of Manifest Destiny—with its illuminated sex toys and ejaculation video—to get approved by your local city council any time soon.