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Each August, over Labor Day week, a surreal spectacle of self-expression rises up from the barren sands of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. 60,000 free-spirited artists and joy seekers migrate to Burning Man to revel in the moment and create something amazing out of nothing. Huge art installations stretch up to the desert sun and creative theme camps let minds play under an explosion of stars.
Burning Man frees art from the staid confines of gallery walls and frames, bringing it out in the open for all to enjoy. And interact with. Imagine giving some of the most creative people on the planet a canvas that’s 7 square miles of desert, saying, “The only rule is, there are no rules.” The results are radical, and jaw-dropping. A 40-foot woman made of steel mesh, dancing in bliss. A giant intergalactic terrestrial inspired by War of the Worlds. A Japanese temple of stars that sweeps a quarter mile across the playa.
In keeping with Burning Man’s “No Spectators” philosophy, one does not simply view these works. You’re here to participate in them. Touch, climb and play with the art. Dance through it, even skydive over it. Often, as with an animated Rubik’s Cube the height of a house, your interaction is required for the piece to be truly complete.
Sometimes the exhibits move too. Mutant vehicles appear like a mirage in the desert dust. Fire-breathing dragons. Miniature zeppelins. An island oasis on wheels. Some have DJ booths or pyrotechnics. Hop on board any of them, or just watch them sail by your field of vision.
The setting, sights, and sensory experiences of Burning Man expand imagination to its outer limits. It is fitting, then, that this year’s theme celebrates Leonardo Da Vinci, arguably the most imaginative spirit to walk the earth. You’ll find his influence all through the improvised city. See flights of fancy: engineered contraptions; heavenly and human bodies; visual illusions. There will even be a reverse hourglass where the sand defies gravity, filling upwards. Simply because it can.
Make magic yourself at one the Guild Workshops that will line the piazza surrounding the Man (a 110-foot sculpture whose burning on the weekend is the event’s emotional highlight). Blow glass and meld metal or invent sounds and weave dreams. Anything goes here. The art is in the doing. As Leonardo himself said, “People of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
At the event’s end, you’ll wonder if any of it actually happened. Because, over the course of four days, much of the art gets burned to the ground. As you watch the flames dance and the desert return to nothing, you’ll ponder your own impermanence.
Burning Man is all about living for the moment. And when the moment is over, it’s time to move on. Though the memories will be burned in your brain forever.