The Art of Burning Man

Interview by Lindley Estes
Issue 56 • October 2017 • Norfolk

Looking for that Burner connection but can’t make the trek to Black Rock? This exhibit brings the art—and the party—of the storied gathering back to the East Coast.

It sparked creative energy for a whole community in Norfolk this summer, and now it’s set to combust.

The Art of Burning Man, which opened June 3 at The Hermitage Museum & Gardens, closes October 14 with a party that marketing manager Jennifer Lucy said, “will conclude in a very Burning Man way.”

The exhibition features outdoor and indoor artworks from seven of Burning Man’s artist teams: Michael Garlington, Charles Gadeken, James Peterson, Bree Hylkema and Sean Orlando of Five Ton Crane, Kirsten Berg, Gregg Fleishman and Christopher Schardt. The upstairs galleries at the museum also feature iconic photographs from Burning Man by Scott London.

The idea for the exhibit started about two years ago when museum director Jen Duncan, looking at pictures of the annual event, wondered if there was a way to bring the artwork and community of Burning Man to the East Coast for people who can't make the pilgrimage to the Nevada desert. It turns out the Burning Man organizers were also looking for a way to bring their core principles and artwork to a larger audience.

“Burners” journey to the Black Rock Desert every year to create a temporary city dedicated to 10 core principles: radical inclusion, self-reliance, self-expression, community cooperation, civic responsibility, gifting, decommodification, participation, immediacy, and leaving no trace. It all started in 1986 when two friends burned a human effigy on a San Francisco beach, drawing a crowd that bonded through music and art. Last year, about 70,000 people attended Burning Man. Central to the annual gathering is collaborative and interactive art created on-site.

For the Hermitage installations, each artist was invited to the museum to talk about setting and how the spot would work for these monoliths that originally stood in the desert. Lucy explained that even though the feel of the Hermitage, set on the water with lush gardens, seems like a world away from Black Rock, the sculptures seemed to take on a new life in the setting.

There's Hylkema's “Storied Haven,” a towering home inside a boot that debuted in 2015 at Burning Man, now in the museum's garden. And Berg's “Compound eye/I,” created for the 2012 gathering and returned to the desert in 2015, challenges separation representing the “eye as instrument of reflection and ‘I’ as object of reflection” now reflects the gardens.

The exhibit is the Hermitage Museum & Gardens’ biggest yet and the first time this artwork has been displayed on the East Coast. Lucy said what resulted was a five-month exhibit that gained an “incredible” response. It all began with an opening party where “people got into it, they dressed in the kind of outfits they had always wanted to wear and really got into the creative expression.”

Along with the galleries, the museum followed the opening events with gatherings every Thursday night to keep collaboration going between community, museum, and artists. She said while the artwork is innovative and engaging, the exhibit was really about bringing the sense of community and the energy of creation and collaboration to Norfolk.

The closing party is open to 2,000 people for food, dancing, music, interacting with art of other surprises. Lucy has a feeling that the event is “going to go down in Norfolk history.” The $50 ticket price covers food and entertainment, as well as helping the museum cover the cost of acquiring new art.

Like at the opening party, Richmond-based DJ Conway Jennings of The Party Liberation Front, who has also played at Burning Man, will perform. Davina the Dragon, an art car that breathes fire, will be on hand, as well as fire spinners, special effects artists, electronic artist Karacell and NOLA street jazz band JANKS.

There are still more performers and attractions not yet announced. Those will be slowly revealed on the event's Facebook page on the days leading up to the party, but the specifics of the concluding ceremony will remain a secret until the night of the celebration. Lucy said they want to push the experience further: “Guests can't be sure sure what will happen next.”

Like the exhibit, the event is about building community. “It's not just standing in front of a painting and reading about it,” Lucy said. “People are making and interacting with art.”

Catch The Art of Burning Man at The Hermitage Museum & Gardens before it goes out in a blaze of glory. Closing festivities happen the night of October 14, tickets are $50 per person. The exhibit will be on display until then, learn more at thehermitagemuseum.org.

Photography provided by The Hermitage Museum & Gardens

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