Burners in flux

Why would anyone spend four months and $180,000 building something that will only last a week? The answer says a lot about Burning Man culture

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The 21,000-square-foot Temple of Flux rises in the desert
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY JOHN CURLEY

steve@sfbg.com

Temples are the spiritual centers and gathering places for the communities that build them, standing as testaments to their faith. In traditional culture, they are lasting monuments. At Burning Man, these complex, beautiful structures are destroyed at the end of the festival.

Building something that takes months to plan, design, and construct but lasts only a week takes an unusual attitude and a faith — not in some unknowable deity, but in one another and the value of collective artistic collaboration. In many ways, the Temple of Flux, this year's spiritual centerpiece on the playa, represents the essence of an event that is redefining the American counterculture.

Burning Man has been experiencing a renaissance in recent years as it moves from a wild bohemian celebration on the open frontier into a permanent counterculture with well-developed urban values, vast social networks, and regional manifestations around the world.

The Temple of Flux crew toiled for months in West Oakland's huge, burner-run American Steel workspace, designing, cutting, painting, and assembling the parts and pieces of what would become five massive wooden structures. And for the last few weeks, they camped and worked in the desert to create what looks like a stunning series of peaks and canyons, dotted with caves and niches that tens of thousands of visitors will explore this week.

Even with volunteer labor, this 21,600 square foot project cost $180,000. And on Sunday, Sept. 5th, it will be completely destroyed by a carefully orchestrated fire. Yet its real value will linger on in the spirit, skills, and community that created it. And that's true of many of the projects that comprise Black Rock City and this year's particularly timely art theme: Metropolis: The Life of Cities.

The city that nearly 50,000 citizens build for Burning Man each year is one of world's great urban centers while it stands, with mind-blowing art and world-class entertainment offered free to all in a stunning visual environment. The $210–$360 ticket that people buy to attend the event only entitles them to help build the city.

But it doesn't last — the city is dismantled entirely, and some of the most impressive art is destroyed. Why do people devote months of their lives to build art that will be burned in a week?

An ambitious undertaking like the Temple of Flux required five carefully packed semi trucks to move and a mind-boggling logistical effort to construct in the hostile world of the Nevada desert. Making it happen was like a full-time unpaid job for four months for many of the more than 200 diverse volunteers.

I spent four months embedded with the crew and helped build the Temple, seeking to understand what drove the artists and builders. The question is pronounced, the answers varied, but it comes down to one of the defining characteristics of Burning Man: the process, the work, the experience, the challenge, and the ability to bond with and learn from others was far more important than the final product.

The three project principals and designers — Rebecca Anders, Jessica Hobbs, and PK Kimelman — have been lauded within the Burning Man community, but they say they are humbled by the efforts of the team that supported them and their vision.

"I was under the impression that I'd have to call in a lot of favors, but people have been coming out of the woodwork," PK, a veteran of the Space Cowboys sound collective who is new to making large-scale art, told me in the desert. "It's a very diverse group of people in their personalities and backgrounds, but it's amazing how it's become just one cohesive group without any factions."