Burning Man Comes to the Cincinnati Art Museum

A participatory exhibition inspired by Burning Man, a weeklong experiment in community, that encourages visitors to dance, listen, and even burn down a temple.
HYBYCOZO, Deep Thought, 2018

Photograph by Ron Blunt

Towering sculptures, vivid costumes, and self-sustaining free thinkers dance barefoot in a dusty, pop-up desert utopia built from scratch. It’s a scene from a dream, or just your typical day at Burning Man, the weeklong community gathering created each year by 70,000 participants who flock to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. For years, the experiential event has been a source of ambitious and unbounded projects that resonate in contemporary American art and culture. And now it’s something Cincinnatians can participate in firsthand at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Marco Cochrane, Truth Is Beauty, 2017

Photograph by Ron Blunt

Officially dubbed No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, the exhibit became available to museums last year thanks to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Nora Atkinson. Atkinson “suggests that there is plenty of interesting work made by many people who don’t consider themselves artists or who operate outside art’s commercial venues,” says David J. Brown, who curated the No Spectators exhibit for CAM. “I personally found that both a challenge and an opportunity—a way to make conversations take place between the show and the museum’s collections.”

The result at CAM is hundreds of radically imaginative art pieces extending throughout 10 different galleries, including immersive room-sized installments, costumes, jewelry, and more, all of which originally emerged from the creative community of Burning Man. Picture multicolored moving mushrooms, giant mutant art vehicles, and a neon-lit sky—art forms unlike any other CAM exhibition to date.

CAM Director Cameron Kitchin first saw No Spectators at the Smithsonian and immediately began working to bring it to Cincinnati. “That was a bold decision,” Brown says. “He and I knew it would upend expectations, that it celebrates the creative spirit in a different way.” As to why Cincinnati was a good fit? CAM is “a midway stop between coasts that has the ability and drive to bring in exhibitions of all sizes,” Brown says. To date, No Spectators has been approved by the founders of Burning Man to be shown only in Washington, D.C.; Oakland, California; and Cincinnati.

Foldhaus, Shrumen Lumen, 2016

Photograph by Ron Blunt

The exhibition mirrors the spirit and ideals of Burning Man in ways beyond the art pieces themselves. For one, the title, No Spectators, is a reflection of a staple principle of the community: participation. “Everything about the project is different,” Kitchin explains. “The immediacy, the radical inclusion of audiences, and the contemporaneous nature of the art creation with the museum visit. I don’t know where it will all take us yet, but I know it will blend what we already know how to do well with what we are discovering.”

Christopher Schardt, Nova, 2016

Photograph by Ron Blunt

Just as museumgoers are expected to touch, hear, and interact with the artwork, the Cincinnati community has been encouraged to participate with the exhibition’s arrival as well. One way is through the “InVasive” project. University of Cincinnati associate professor Samantha Krukowski and her Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning students were inspired to lead the ambitious building project to create the element most associated with Burning Man: the Temple.

“[The InVasive project] turned into this lovely thing that involved DAAP and the community,” Krukowski says of the tower, which is built using invasive honeysuckle harvested on the museum’s grounds. Volunteer students and community members have spent weeks building the structure, modeled after the different variations of the Temple built at Burning Man through the years, which is traditionally burned as a ceremonial cleansing to mark the end of the weeklong event. The Cincinnati honeysuckle temple currently resides on the northwest side of CAM but, in keeping with tradition, will be burned after the exhibition has closed (though exactly when and how has yet to be determined).

Garlington and Bertotti, The Paper Arch, 2018

Photograph by Ron Blunt

While the feelings associated with Burning Man can’t quite be captured with words, and, of course, no two experiences are ever exactly the same, Krukowski, Brown, and Kitchin share hopes for how the exhibition may leave a lasting impact on Cincinnati. Krukowski, who wrote a book about Burning Man and has attended seven times, says she hopes the “No Spectators exhibition will change Cincinnati, because Burning Man changes everybody who goes.” Brown shared her sentiment, reflecting on his time in the desert. “When you are out on the playa, this temporary city inspires curiosity, involvement, and serendipity and encourages you to be open to new experiences.” Kitchin’s aspirations for the exhibit were even larger. “Life isn’t a spectator activity,” he muses. “I hope, in some degree, we find the common humanity in ourselves and others.”

Making Waves
The exhibition will make its way from Washington, D.C., to the Cincinnati Art Museum in two installments. The first wave opens April 26 and the second on June 7, with both closing September 2.

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