Founded in 1986 as a beach bonfire gathering culminating with the burning of an effigy, Burning Man has since evolved into a massive event where more than 70,000 people from all over the world come together in celebration of art, community, and self-expression. For one week every year, a temporary city is constructed out of nothing in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada and leaves no trace when it is over (though the gathering occurred virtually for the first time in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
At Burning Man, no one is out of place, and everyone belongs. The 10 Principles guide the spirit of ‘Black Rock City,’ some of which include radical inclusion and self-expression, participation, decommodification, participation, and immediacy. The art that is imagined, created, and constructed for the event is meant to be experienced by all — not just visually but also through other forms of immersion like touch, interaction, and meaningful personal experience.
The art comes alive, sometimes through illusory visual effects and lights, with stunning textures, sounds, and music. Some of it represents powerful symbols or statements, offers a peaceful place to rest, and evokes or facilitates a personal psychedelic experience.
Keep reading to explore the world of psychedelic art at Burning Man and what it means to the artists and community.
Psychedelic art at Burning Man
Color, sound, and shape come together at Burning Man, but it is a very different experience than a typical performance or visit to a gallery. Just as an encounter with psychedelics might evoke feelings of connectedness to others and the universe as a whole, such is the philosophy surrounding the creation of art in the spirit of radical inclusivity at Burning Man. The organization’s arts mission is to “change the paradigm of art from a commodified object to an interactive, participatory, shared experience of creative expression.”
The term ‘psychedelic art’ might bring to mind the counterculture, rock music, and illicit use of hallucinogenic drugs in the 1960s and 70s. It has deeper meanings than that, though: the word psychedelic is derived from Greek and means mind-manifesting.
As an adjective, the word can simply mean “causing unusually strong experiences of color, sound, smell, taste, and touch, and other mental effects such as feelings of deep understanding or hallucination,” and “likely to produce a strong effect because of having bright colors or patterns,” according to the Cambridge Dictionary. The art of Burning Man is certainly all of these things.
Though many mediums of art like sculpture, paint, and performance are celebrated during the week, there are other artistic elements that add to the unique experience. Here are just a few:
Though Burning Man is an amazing visual experience by day, nighttime transforms Black Rock City into a glowing visual wonderland like a living pinball machine. Lights decorate bodies and costumes, bikes, and vehicles in addition to the dazzling displays involving lights in art installations, mutant vehicles, and structures. Lights may flash, shift in color, or move with the music. They might serve to illuminate the most relevant aspect of a work or compliment the design.
While lights are an important part of the visual experience, they also serve a very functional purpose at Burning Man. Lighting helps vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians see art installations and avoid collisions in the dark. Rebar and other structural materials are the number one cause of injury at the annual event, so organizers encourage artists to keep this in mind when making a plan for how to illuminate their work at night.
Individuals also utilize light to express themselves and ensure safety after the sun goes down. “Stay lit, don’t get hit” is a common phrase to remind people to make themselves seen when moving in the dark of the playa. Lighting is intricately incorporated into costumes and bicycle adornments for visibility, making for an indescribable display of color amidst an incredible backdrop of art and communal gatherings.
It’s not just the effigy of a man that burns each year at this radical gathering. Group camp displays, stages, art installations, performers and dancers or their props, art cars, and mutant vehicles all frequently make use of fire to celebrate the mystique of the element humankind has been fascinated with for thousands of years.
In addition to the Man, many art installations and structures burn at some point during the event as an acknowledgment that everything is somewhat transient and the value of being present in each moment, appreciating its value and letting go when the time has come.
One of the most notable instances of this (other than burn night, where the man and a great deal of art installations are burned) is the burning of the temple on the very last evening. Throughout the week, the temple serves as a place to reflect and make peace with events of the past that have been challenging, painful, transformative, inspiring, or life-altering. People bring photos and mementos or write letters to leave in the temple as a symbol of letting go or accepting something significant.
This sentiment is very much aligned with the aims of psychedelic medicines, which some experts believe may help people make peace with trauma or other areas of discord in their lives that hinder growth and a path forward. As such, much of the art burned at the event each year is inspired by the creators’ own epiphanies and revelations during personal psychedelic experiences that have been impactful in how they view the world.
Lasers abound at Burning Man, whether beaming into the sky or projected across horizontal planes. Some works of art at the event are comprised entirely of lasers and form unique architectural sculptures.
Art cars and stages have moving, mounted laser systems to enhance the visual experience, often drawing inspiration from psychedelic and geometric art in the lighting design plan. It’s common for events to beam lasers overhead to attract people to events and gatherings, which are usually open to every citizen of Black Rock City as part of the radical inclusion and participation principles.
Closing thoughts and resources
While mainstream genres of art often confine the artist or creator to certain parameters to be considered credible, psychedelic art’s entire purpose is to defy limitations and judgment. Its value is not based on an established set of skills or adherence to expectations. Psychedelic art is a manifestation and celebration of the creator’s perspective, presented as an offering to others as a vessel to facilitate their own personal journey.
The art at Burning Man seeks to challenge and engage people in a shared experience that has lasting impacts well beyond the week of the gathering. The art is funded personally by artists or through contributions from the community all over the world. Even those who do not plan to attend the event are able to participate in the creation of art for Burning Man, whether it is through funding, volunteering time, or raising awareness.
A gallery of photos and information about the Burning Man art exhibit ‘No Spectators’ during its residency at the Oakland Museum was published by SFGate.