Burning Man's Monumental and Outlandish Art

Burning Man’s Singular Art - Scott London - H 2016
Scott London/Race Point Publishing, an Imprint of Quarto Publishing Group

The Burning Man Project provides grants of over $1 million a year to artists who create the festival's unique works, many also funded by VC and other private backers.

Every year at Burning Man, dozens of enormous experiential artworks rise up out of the dust, turning the Nevada desert into much more than a party scene. It’s also the world’s largest-scale outdoor art festival, from the towering Man effigy that’s burned in a sort of pagan ritual on Saturday night to the art pieces that hundreds of volunteers spend months creating.

During this year’s fest, running Aug. 28 to Sept. 5, look for the hotly anticipated arrival of the 747 Project, one-half of a 1985 Boeing airliner that has been converted into an interactive experience by the Big Imagination Foundation. Go inside artist Dan Sullivan’s Catacomb of Veils, two connected pyramids, 220 feet across at the base, with interiors decorated with dyed silks (estimated cost: $200,000), which will provide areas for reflection and introspection amid the frenzy of Burning Man. Check out Chronosydra, a reverse sand hourglass. Look for beacons from the Black Rock Lighthouse Service to help you navigate the playa at night. And don’t miss the latest work from longtime participating artist Laura Kimpton, whose pieces will spell out, in 12-foot-high wooden characters, the word “Magic” and the @ sign. Funders of Kimpton’s two works include Dragon Global private equity firm founder Bob Zangrillo and his business partner Tony Cho, who later plan to install the pieces in a sculpture garden in Miami filled with Burning Man art as part of a development project called Magic City.

Look for Dan Sullivan's Catacomb of Veils at this year's festival.

Many art pieces — including 2014’s famous Embrace, a seven-story-tall sculpture of two human figures hugging by Matthew Shultz and the Pier Group — are partly funded by the nonprofit Burning Man Project, which gives grants to artists that total more than $1?million each year. This year, the grant program — which is funding more than 50 projects in 2016 — awarded its youngest artist yet. Five-year-old Sagan Bocskar, who has been going to Burning Man since he was 2 months old, will be on the playa this year with his 10-foot-tall Jedi Dog Temple, which first was conceived using wood blocks. Most art projects also raise a significant portion of their funds on crowd-funding sites.

This month, the festival, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary, gets its artistic due with the publication of the new coffee-table book Burning Man: Art on Fire (Race Point Publishing), a look at the art of the festival over the years. “Burning Man has always been a community of expression and that has manifested itself in all kinds of ways, from the costumes and camps to the performance art. The first Man [effigy] was a piece of art,” says the book’s author, Jennifer Raiser. “Creativity and expression have always been at Burning Man’s center.” Some of the most outlandish projects documented in Raiser’s book are the festival’s famed art cars (which are floats-slash-party buses) and mutant vehicles including the perennial El Pulpo Mechanico, an enormous steampunk metal octopus by Duane Flatmo that shoots flames from the ends of its tentacles. Don’t count on getting a seat, though, on some of the most popular art cars. Many are reserved for people who’ve helped fund the projects.

Embrace, by Matthew Shultz and the Pier Group, was constructed out of wood and metal.

Raiser’s book also provides a look at the many iterations of the Temple, an intricate, large-scale wood structure that is burned on the last Sunday of the festival, 24 hours after the Man goes up in flames. (Given this year’s Da Vinci’s Workshop theme, the 2016 Man will be a take on the Renaissance master’s Vitruvian Man.) The temple is built as a place where attendees leave remembrances such as photos and letters to mourn people they have lost.

“I’m not even religious in real life, but I find the temple is a very spiritual place,” says Melanie Bromley, chief news correspondent at E! and a regular Burning Man attendee. “People go there to read the letters, to remember people, just to appreciate life. It’s the ultimate meditative location in the middle of the craziness, LED lights and art cars.” This year’s pagoda-inspired, hand-cut structure, designed by longtime temple creator David Best, will rise 100 feet high.

Powder-coated steel and steel cable make up Kate Raudenbush’s 2012 "Star Seed." (Images from the book Burning Man: Art on Fire.)

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.