Burning Man Themes… Reflecting the Mind of Larry Harvey

One of four gateways to the 2015 Burning Man carnival. William Blake's poem "TIGER, tiger, burning bright. In the forests of the night,. What immortal hand or eye. Could frame thy fearful symmetry?" was printed around the edge.

One of four gateways to the 2015 Burning Man Carnival. William Blake’s poem “Tiger, tiger, burning bright, In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” was printed around the edge.

Larry Harvey created the first theme for Burning Man in 1995, ten years after he had co-founded the event. Ever since, he and his crew have been churning out a new topic every year. I picture him sitting somewhere in San Francisco, puffing away on his ever-present cigarette, and waiting for inspiration to strike. Finally, the proverbial light bulb flashes. Why don’t we make this year The Nebulous Entity, or Caravansary, or Beyond Belief? It would be interesting to track Harvey’s thought process.

The first theme was Good and Evil. Undoubtedly, there were costumed angels and devils wandering all over the Playa and Black Rock City. There still are. I recall one year when every other woman seemed to have sprouted wings. Maybe there was a sale on. I ran into a bit of good and evil myself at 2015’s Burning Man. I spun a wheel of fortune and was told, “you will soon discover if you are the good twin or the evil one.” Did I really want to know? Later I found a graphic sideshow poster of how it might look.

A wheel of fortune at Burning Man suggested I would soon find out whether I was a good or evil twin.

A wheel of fortune at Burning Man suggested I would soon find out whether I was a good or evil twin.

Carnival or sideshow art has been used for over a century to pull people into sideshows where all sorts of unusual sights were promised.

I must say, being evil looks a bit more interesting. Carnival or sideshow art has been used for over a century to pull people into sideshows where all sorts of unusual sights are promised.Vintage original art is now worth thousands of dollars to collectors.

Burning Man invites individuals, groups and artists to participate in and interpret its annual theme through their costumes, camps and creative works. Here’s a complete list of themes since 1995:

2016 — Da Vinci’s Workshop

2015 — Carnival of Mirrors

2014 — Caravansary

2013 — Cargo Cult

2012 — Fertility 2.0

2011 — Rites of Passage

2010 — Metropolis – The Life Of Cities

2009 — Evolution – A Tangled Bank

2008 — American Dream

2007 — The Green Man

2006 — Hope & Fear

2005 — Psyche

2004 — Vault of Heaven

2003 — Beyond Belief

2002 — The Floating World

2001 — The Seven Ages

2000 — The Body

1999 — The Wheel of Time

1998 — The Nebulous Entity

1997 — Mysteria

1996 — The Inferno

1995 — Good and Evil

The 2015 theme was built around the concept of carnivals and mirrors. A city of tents grew up around the Man featuring carnival posters, mirrors and games of chance. Four large gateways invited Burners in to where hucksters pushed their games of chance, or just strangeness. I checked my image in each of the mirrors but skipped the ring toss where the posts took on a definite phallic look. I stopped to watch a show where a talented acrobat displayed her skills, and I helped pull ropes that made a giant skeleton dance.

A devilish gateway into Burning Man 2015.

A devilish gateway into then Burning Man Carnival. Note: I arrived early at Burning Man this year before the crowds gathered. Many of the Carnival attractions and other installations throughout Black Rock City were still being set up.

I found this humorous guy hanging out inside.

I found this humorous guy hanging out inside.Nice tongue.

Taking a page from Dante's Inferno, this gateway switched the words from

Taking a page from Dante’s Inferno, this circus elephant gateway switched the words from “Abandon all Hope” to “Abandon all Despair.”

The fourth gate into the carnival was this nerdy looking young woman.

The fourth gate into the carnival was this nerdy looking young woman.

A stage in the carnival featured ongoing shows such as this flexible acrobat.

A stage in the carnival featured ongoing shows such as this flexible acrobat.

A large skeleton puppet had ropes that Burners could use to make the skeleton dance.

A large skeleton puppet had ropes that Burners could use to make the skeleton dance. Carnival poster art surrounded the Man and what Burning Man called its Fun House.

Following are three sideshow posters that I found particularly amusing including this tattooed cat.

Following are three sideshow posters that I found particularly amusing including this two-headed tattooed cat.

Ancient Aliens...

Ancient Aliens…

A Playa Chicken.

And a Playa Chicken.

My friend Don Green took this photo of the Fun House entrance. I will be featuring many of Don's photos throughout this series.

My friend Don Green took this photo of the Fun House entrance. I will be featuring many of Don’s photos throughout this series.

Don seems a little worried about the doctor that was prepared to operate on him in one of the carnivals side tents.

Don seems a little worried about the doctor that was prepared to operate on him in one of the carnivals side tents.

I was taken with the detail in this painting that welcomed Burners into the Fun House.

I was taken with the detail in this painting that welcomed Burners into the Fun House. (See Don’s photo of the entrance above.)

A closeup of the face.

A closeup of the face.

And even more detail featuring a gypsy woman.

And even closer shot featuring a gypsy woman with her incredible detail.

Various mirrors welcomed Burners inside the Fun House. I took this photo of Squirrels on my T-shirt. The caption was "Birdseed, what birdseed?"

Various mirrors welcomed Burners inside the Fun House. I took this fractured mirror selfie of my see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil squirrels  T-shirt. The backward caption is “Birdseed, what birdseed?”

A final shot for today, this one looking up at the Man from inside the Fun House.

A final shot for today, this one looking up at the Man from inside the Fun House.

The 2016 Theme, “Da Vinci’s Workshop,” is designed to draw a parallel between Medieval Florence and Burning Man in terms of art, technical innovation, and patronage. (No one has ever accused Larry Harvey of being shy, modest, or lacking in ambition when it comes to promoting Burning Man, but seeing Black Rock City as the equivalent to Florence, and as “the epicenter of a new renaissance,” is something of a leap.)

Still, the art being inspired by Burning Man is very impressive. And the 2016 Man being “surrounded by a public square, a piazza lined with workshops, each representing a guild…” with the guilds being “self-invented and devoted to the interactive manufacture of whatever participating artists and inventors can imagine, ” sounds like fun.

NEXT BLOG: We will travel into Black Rock City and out into the Playa to explore other ways the 2015 theme of Carnival and Mirrors was represented.

39 comments on “Burning Man Themes… Reflecting the Mind of Larry Harvey

  1. So glad you were there early to get these shots for us to see. Wow! Love the theme, love the entrance, but am truly blown away by the detail in the artwork at the Fun House. (Thanks for the close-ups.) The list of themes makes me think of the themes at the Rose Parade. Sometimes I think you can make just about any float fit the theme for that year. Could be the same at Burning Man. Also love the Blake quote on the entryway. Thanks for sharing. I feel as if I’m there!

    • Thanks Rusha. Good analogy with the Rose Parade. I’ve always felt that Burning Man is like a three ring plus circus anyway. It is like Harvey was acknowledging the connection. The detailed art blew me away as well. It was all I could do to not post another five pictures on it that I took. –Curt

  2. The art is way coo, Curtl. Carnival stuff is kind of freaky scary to me. Could be from watching American Horror Story last season. ;). And I’m not fond of clowns either.

    • Ah, the clown is coming Bridgette. Hold on to your seat. (grin) There is more about the theme on my next blog, including a really cool mirror doohickey that folks can’t resist performing in front of. 🙂 –Curt

    • The sunshine goes with the desert, although it is surprising how many times over the years I’ve been caught by rain at Burning Man. Everything stops, Dave, because you instantly have inches of mud on your feet, tires or bike tires if you try to travel. They even shut down the traffic entering the event until things dry out. It can be a couple or more hours. –Curt

      • Having been to a few countryside festivals, I can well imagine. Best story is watching Van Morrison fall out with his microphone stand at the Bishopstock UK blues fest 2000 AD. Great, actually, but the missus wants out of there and we drive out of the muddy bottom-field car-park (spot the problem!) before everyone else. They were hours (days?) trying to get out. Smug or what, and I wanted to give Van the Man a 2nd chance …

      • Great timing, Dave. And timing is all important at Burning Man where 2-4 hours is not at all unusual for getting out of the event. I left at 3:30 AM this past year and managed to get out in 45 minutes, which was something of a record for me.People leaving a couple of hours later had at least a two hour exit time. –Curt

  3. It took me forever to stop looking at each picture and the detail put into each display!! The Burning Man will always amaze me. [and i do believe I say that every year, don’t I?!]

  4. OMG. Curt. That squirrel T-shirt. I burst out laughing when I got to that point. I have to try and find that one.

    I am totally mesmerized by the woman’s face with all the drawings. I can’t help but think of Madame Chinchillla since I’m reading through your old posts and just read about tattoos a little while ago.

    Ok, on to the next one. I want to see more mirrors.

    • Madam Chinchilla and Captain Don fed right into the Burning Man series, Crystal. I will refer back to the blog at some point. Thanks for reminding me. As for the squirrels, my daughter picked it up in Tennessee somewhere. It is one of my favorite T-shirts! More mirror are coming. 🙂 –Curt

  5. When I got to the fun house, I suddenly was back in the 1950s, when my dad would take me to the carnival when it came to town. All of those memories — penny pitching, cotton candy, the people running the rides — and the fun house, with all of the oddities that made me want to hold my daddy’s hand! Perhaps those connections are what make this one seem less…ummm…overdone and weird. I’m eager to see what else was around.

    DaVinci’s Workshop sounds like an inspired theme, actually. That should really be a splendid one.

    • I was reminded, Linda, of an experience from my youth when you mentioned penny tossing. We tossed dimes, both for glassware (people collect carnival glass now) and stuffed animals. To win glass, the dime had to land in the glassware. For the stuffed animal, it had to land in a small circle. A month before the fair one year, when I was maybe ten, I bought five dollars worth of dimes and spent an hour every night practicing. The fair came and I went armed for bear, so to speak. After I had won five of the fluffy fellows, the Carny wouldn’t let me play at his booth any longer. An older boy traded $10 for 3 of them to impress his girlfriend. It was a very profitable year.Oh, and I also supplemented my mom’s glassware. She was quite pleased. –Curt

  6. Curt it is absolutely fascinating. The huge mouths as gateways really are attention grabbers, no to mention absolutely every other eyeful. You are convincing me I may have to find a way to attend one of these. Wow!

    • In many ways, Sue. I’ll be doing a number of blogs over the next two months that try to capture what I like about the event— the things that keep me coming back. It is definitely worth a visit. But watch out, it can become addictive. 🙂 –Curt

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