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Art Through Time: A Global View

Ceremony and Society Art: Burning Man Effigy

» American artist

Burning Man Effigy

Burning Man Effigy
Artist / Origin: American artist
Region: North America
Date: Early 21st century
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Wood, nails
Medium: Video, Installation, and Performance
Dimensions: H: approx. 40 ft. (12.19 m.) (without plinth)
Location: Black Rock City, Nevada (temporary community)
Credit: © C. Lyttle/CORBIS

In June of 1986 on a beach in San Francisco, Larry Harvey and Jerry James, with the help of some friends, burned an eight-foot tall figure in the shape of a man.

This act of “radical self-expression” marked the beginnings of the annual Burning Man festival. The week-long event now attracts tens of thousands of participants to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert where they form a temporary experimental community known as Black Rock City. As it has expanded, Burning Man has been forced to adopt certain official rules and policies for safety reasons, but the essential tenets on which the event was founded—immediacy, participation, decommodification, civic and environmental responsibility, radical self-reliance and self-expression—remain the same.

Art-making and performance are core components of the Burning Man festival. Each year participants at Burning Man create and perform works inspired by a given theme (recent themes have included: “Evolution,” “American Dream,” “The Green Man,” and “Hope and Fear: The Future”). Free from the confines of the traditional art world, the collaborative environment of the Burning Man has been fertile ground for outsider and visionary art. A permanent organization, The Black Rock Arts Foundation, now offers grants for artists, sponsors interactive art projects at Burning Man, and supports art that carries the values of Burning Man culture (e.g., impermanence, experimentation, and inclusiveness) into the broader community.

True to its name and roots, the festival culminates each year with the ritual burning of a human effigy, which has in recent years grown to over forty feet. Constructed and erected on-site by event participants, and positioned in the desert so that the sun rises behind it, the Burning Man effigy is an iconic reminder to keep the creative “fires” burning within long after the event has come to a close.

Expert Perspective:
Tavia Nyong’o, Associate Professor of Performance Studies, New York University

“Burning Man is sort of a newly invented ritual, and its origins have some connections, some argue, to the summer solstice. There is no preconception, according to the organizers, as to what forms of creativity that will take, and it often looks like a festival, or a rave, or a neo-counterculture to people who are encountering it for the first time. So the purpose, number one, is to kind of foster that and experience that for the duration of Burning Man, but then to leave Burning Man with the memory of that. And people then go on to identify as ‘burnees,’ and there are ways of incorporating Burning Man into your life that go beyond just those eight days. And so in some ways it fulfills—in a modern Western setting—it fulfills a lot of the conditions that we associate with non-Western societies of an annual event that becomes a kind of time and place set apart from daily life. I think it is very important that Burning Man comes to a very empty space, and it leaves it as empty as it was when it arrived. So this notion of a whole city appearing and disappearing more or less overnight is very important to that sense of a temporary experience.”

Additional Resources

Bowditch, Rachel. On the Edge of Utopia: Performance and Ritual at Burning Man. Chicago: Seagull Books, 2009.

Burning Man Web site.

Gilmore, Lee, and Mark van Proyen, eds. AfterBurn: Reflections on Burning Man (Counterculture Series). University of New Mexico: Albuquerque, 2005.

Rockwell, David, and Bruce Mau. Spectacle. London: Phaidon, 2006.

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