‘No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man’ at OMCA is captivating

HYBYCOZO, Trocto, 2014. Courtesy: Oakland Museum of California

If you, like me, avoid heat and sand without an adjacent ocean, and so are not one of the 70,000 “burners” who attended the annual weeklong Burning Man event last month, seeing the new fascinating and playful exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) will give you an insight into the particular creative culture of Burning Man. And it looks like fun, filled with smart and artistic constructions that are contemporary and captivating.

Burning Man began at San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986. Its participants now annually create, build and then destroy a temporary city in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert filled with more than 300 art installations by the artists, innovators and those in the growing contemporary Maker Movement who promote repurposing castoff materials. Many of these avant-garde artists live and work in the Bay Area. Because of the enormous size of the city’s central Playa, many of the artistic creations are massively sized and designed to be destroyed, or at least destroyable, at the end of each year.

Initially organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, OMCA is No Spectators’ final and only West Coast stop. It includes commissioned works, jewelry, gifts, costumes, “mutant” vehicles, photography, ephemera, paintings and artifacts. But the oversized works are obviously the most impressive.

In OMCA’s garden is a magnificent 40-foot-tall outdoor temple created out of recycled wooden panels by famed sculptor David Best, especially commissioned by OMCA. It is designed to be a quiet place of reflection and remembrance, and succeeds admirably in creating that mood. Small wood plaques are available so that visitors may write memorials. I did.


Another striking outdoor sculpture is Marco Cochrane’s Truth is Beauty, the graceful 18-foot tall steel mesh likeness of the nude model, dancer Deja Solis. A 55-foot version appeared at Burning Man in 2013.

Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti, The Paper Arch, 2018. Courtesy: Oakland Museum of California

Among the indoor treasures is a bus that has been converted into a terrific miniature working movie theater by the arts collective Five Ton Crane. It is detailed down to the elaborately designed concession-stand candy packages, complete with witty political messages, and the expressly created Obsolete Films that one can watch in the seats provided. Also really unusual, is Duane Flatmo’s striking pedal-powered dragon-shaped vehicle that is mostly made from old aluminum cookware.

A less exciting companion exhibition within the main gallery, City of Dust: The Evolution of Burning Man, organized by the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, traces Burning Man’s origins from its counterculture roots in the Bay Area to the huge extravaganza it has become.

No Spectators effectively communicates the ethos of Burning Man and its guiding Ten Principles of Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy. Fine concepts to live by.

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man is on view at the Oakland Museum of California, until Feb. 16, 2020. There are lots of special events celebrating the exhibit. For example, on Friday, Nov. 8, a special Burning Man Block Party will take over OMCA’s wildly popular Friday Nights at OMCA, closing down the surrounding 10th and Oak streets with interactive art cars from the Playa, fire dancing and flame demonstrations by The Crucible, a mass of marching bands and music, Off the Grid food trucks, and more, expanding across OMCA’s gardens and entire campus. For further information visit OMCA online.