Burning Man Art: A Movement of Themes
The iconic event known as Burning Man started off with a small population of 35 just individuals when founders Larry Harvey and Jerry James burned a human effigy on a San Francisco beach, the first example of Burning Man Art. From here the festival grew rapidly, but the spirit of artistic expression never wavered even as the masses flocked to each new festival. Each year the Man, well… burned, and each year the audience steadily grew. With each new person came new ideas and ways of expression that eventually turned the effigy burning into a full on phenomena.
Burning Man would make its way to Nevada’s Pershing County and develop into a community of artists and free thinkers that uphold an inclusive philosophy. Every year the weeklong festival erects Black Rock City within the Black Rock Desert, a camp ground where attendees congregate and take part in the culture of Burning Man. In 1995 theme camp culture began to dominate the design of the camp, setting a precedent for years to come. So let’s take a look at the themes of each festival and how Burning Man Art has evolved since this practice started.
Good and Evil (1995)
The Man himself stood at 40’ tall and without need for a platform (his feet just became really, really big). He sported blue and red neon as his primary colors, two very different colors that can be seen as representing the dynamic differences of good and evil. During this year dust, wind, lightning and rain provided a unique look to the festival, sprouting mud people and even a double rainbow. The contrast between a storm and a rainbow unintentionally reinforces this first Burning Man theme.
The Inferno (1996)
This year’s Man adorned a smiley face and stood at a solid 48’ tall. There was an attempt at a buyout by the HELCO Corporation and this was represented in this year’s Burning Man art: a show was put on showing temptresses and corporate mascots surrounding one of the festival’s most prominent characters. A HELCO tower was built and then promptly burned, taking the inferno theme to heart.
Now 50’ tall, Burning Man had a body of blue, green and purple over a bale of hay. Perfect weather persisted but political strife with the local authorities was a major issue in 1997. It would take years for the festival to recover from such tensions. Theme camps popped up even more frequently and the event actually started becoming laid out more like a city. Burning Man begins to take on more of what its current form would be; a welcome direction for the longevity of the festival.
Nebulous Entity (1998)
This was an otherworldly theme, and the look of the Black Rock Desert made it the perfect place for it. Burning Man is now 52’ and adorns horns with a blue outline. The city was circular this year, a callback to the first festival in that everyone surrounds the spectacle of the Burn in the spirit of togetherness. A full moon was present, giving the other worldly theme more credence.
Wheel of Time (1999)
Welcome to the first Saturday Burn of the (now 54’) Man. The time adjustment of the burning, as it always occurred on Sunday, matched the theme. Each street was named after planets in the solar system and laid out like a clock. Burning Man art was much more guided this year due to the formation of the new art department, and the layout of the 1999 festival is evidence of this.
The Body (2000)
Outlined in red and raised by participants by means of rope for the (What was assumed to be) final time, this year’s Burning Man was very strong when it comes to themes. Body parts were found all across the playa and in differing portions. Each street was named after body parts and lasers formed the body of a man visible from far away. “Laser man” was born.
Seven Ages (2001)
In honor of the theme, the Burning Man got a significant height increase to 7 stories total (man at 40, tower at 30). Due to the size of the Man a crane was necessary to hoist him up. Each installation was also tracked with GPS, allowing for more efficient clean up of the event. In terms of layout each participant must pass through various “stages” in life to get to the city center. Each stage ultimately led to the temple of wisdom, earned through successful navigation. Burning Man art was becoming more elaborate by the year!
The World Floating (2002)
Meant to look like a huge bay, this year’s event turned the desert into imaginary seas with the Man himself as the central lighthouse to bring it all together. This year he was 80’when combined with his lighthouse and was accompanied by lasers. The Playa itself was smoothed out tremendously from spring floods, fitting the theme even better than anticipated.
Beyond Belief (2003)
This year’s Burning Man art was truly larger than life. A grand temple was constructed for the neon clad Man to sit atop, with participants posing as living icons and venues within the temple itself. Theme camps increased even more, beyond what has come before to greet the 30,586 participants.
The Vault of Heaven (2004)
The Man stood atop an observatory this year, an eye to the heavens. Though the event was filled with challenges, this year as the weather went wildly unpredictable and caused many installations to be relegated to their individual camps. What art was there was an exploration of the scientific and celestial aspects of this year’s theme.
In a bid to explore psychological themes of self-expression, self-reflection and the power of dreams, the Playa was divided into zones that explored different regions of the mind. The Man resided above a fun house with each room representing a different mood, and a mask to correspond. The weather was some of the best yet.
Hope and Fear (2006)
This year’s art installation left attendees in awe. A modern cathedral known as “The Belgian Waffle” was grand in stature and the Man resided on top of his own art deco structure in the center. 300 art installations were present on the Playa, a record for the time. Burning Man looked into the future, reaching its 21st year and moving into adulthood.
The Green Man (2007)
This one was revolutionary. The Green Man fundamentally altered the way the festival itself functioned with bio-diesel powering the Man Pavilion alongside a solar ray. Simulated trees created the “Man Grove” and The Mountain he stood on contained information on the latest in ecological tech. All this during a lunar eclipse! The man actually burned twice this year, thanks to an arsonist. The community managed to pull through, however, and a second man was built in record time. This was a truly standout year.
American Dream (2008)
Burning Man art was very, very patriotic this year. The Man took on America’s colors, clad in red, white and blue. He also stood taller than in previous years at 90’ and surrounded by flags from around the world. Burning Man also expanded geographically due to even more increased popularity. The theme for this one was the first (intentionally) political one and inspired spirited discussion among attendees.
Considering the state of the world in 2009, evolution was an apt theme for a constantly changing event like Burning Man. With the advent of the global financial crisis Burning Man was undergoing some major shake ups internally. Less art installations were allowed due to the financial setbacks but with all this Burning Man managed to adapt. The Man stood upon a wired DNA strand with a Charles Darwin quote. This was a year of re-examination and allowed for Burning Man to prosper and grow into the future.
The Man stood 104’ on a pavilion with gargoyles and double staircases with Black Rock City’s streets named after the major metropolises of the world. This was a larger scale event than most. The population was increased to beyond 50,000 this year. Attendees stepped up and added two new city streets mid event and the metropolis expanded (in spite of a 3 hour rainstorm).
Rites of Passage (2011)
The beautiful thing about this year’s Burning Man art was the way it honored city designer Rod Garrett. Rod sadly passed away prior to the event, never being able to see his finished construction. Because of this, his ashes were placed in a constructed box in his honor. The Rite of Passage theme prompted many to consider moments the moments in life they felt to be significant, resulting in the creation of installations like the Temple of Transition.
Fertility 2.0 (2012)
The first sequel theme! Higher than average first time burners were welcomed to the mix (making up 35%) and their first foray into the culture of Burning Man was a fruitful one. Streets were named after different species of flowers and The Man stood atop a honeycomb pavilion.
Cargo Cult (2013)
The aim of this year’s theme was to present the community with the solution to they’ve been looking for: themselves. The Man was propped on a 117’ wide 1950s style flying saucer, as if descended from the heavens to save humankind. This was Burning Man at its most creative, taking it right back to the fundamentals and providing a venue for self expression with its strong theme.
In 2014 we saw the biggest Man yet at 105’ and no platform. The Burning Man art this year allowed for hubs of various influences to congregate together and share ideas, information and resources in the spirit of ancient crossroads. There were even shops set up for the sale and distribution of art (tangible or performance), providing quite the marketplace of ideas.
Carnival of Mirrors (2015)
Burning Man went very interactive this year with a carnival theme displaying art from all across the world (16 countries to be exact). This year Burning Man returned to the old Playa, being subject to high winds and dust storms. However, there were also 326 art pieces to weather the storms alongside participants, testing the theme of radical self-reliance.
Da Vinci’s Workshop (2016)
This year’s goal was clear: Make Black Rock City the epicenter of the new renaissance. The man was labeled the Vitruvian Man and stood 70 feet tall. Guild workshops were spread about the installation, some coming from different countries and encouraging repose, relaxation, and meeting new people. The opportunity to share new ideas and customs was very much reinforced by the thematic presence of this year’s Burning Man.
Radial Ritual (2017)
It was truly a global effort. 9 out of 30 Shrine projects came from different states and 7 out of the 30 came from different countries. The Man was raised with the classic rope for the first time in 17 years and after the burn a series of hurricanes struck. Because of this an effort was made to provide relief to those who’ve had their settlements upended and Burners without Borders sprang into action to save the day. The sense of unity was as powerful as ever and Burning Man Art from across the globe went on to reflect this sense of companionship.
The art of Burning Man has been the foundation in which this whole movement was built. It’s helped with self expression and self reliance and still has more room to grow. This year will be an I, Robot themed event and we can’t wait to see what the attendees bring to the community. Need to get geared up in time for the big event? Come by the Surplus Store as we have a tremendous amount of stock available for participants! We have been supporting this movement for years and know the importance of expressing yourself and making sure you’re taken care of in Black Rock City. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram for updates on our products when planning your next big adventure. Let your Burning Man Art live on and be a true reflection of you!