I wasn’t all that surprised to find a forty-foot-tall jellyfish hanging out on the Playa. It was Burning Man, after all. Plus, I had seen pictures of it—I’d previewed the art I could expect to find in Black Rock City this year. Don’t get me wrong, I love surprises. There is magic in finding something you have never seen before, and can’t even imagine seeing. But my time was limited. I had three days: Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I was staying on Sunday as well, but artists start removing their art then. Or it has been burned. And I wanted to be sure I caught the major works. There were dozens of them scattered over the Playa, spread out as far as the eye could see.
Peter Hazel was a construction worker in tile and granite in another life. I imagine that he was a good one, that he took pride in his work, maybe even regarded it as art. But his world view shifted significantly a few years back when he made a trip to Barcelona and came in contact with the uniquely inspiring art of Antoni Gaudi. The world lost a talented contractor, and gained a talented artist.
I get it. Peggy and I were in Barcelona a few years back as well, maybe even around the same time Hazel was visiting. I wrote this for a post I published then:
Barcelona arrived in the Twentieth Century with its own brand of Art Nouveau, Modernisme. Combining whimsical and practical with a healthy dollop of nature, Barcelona’s artists and architects did a makeover of their city. Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), the best known among the Modernistas, added a strong religious belief to his work and became the architect of Sagrada Familia, the Church of the Holy Family.
Started in 1883, the church continues to be a work in progress today. Like the towering cathedrals of the Gothic and Renaissance periods, it is a work of generations, and like the great cathedrals of Europe, is a masterpiece of art and architecture. Peggy, I, and our traveling companions walked inside and could only stare up in awe.
Here are a few photos Peggy and I took that illustrate why.
The forty-foot-tall, thirty-foot-wide jellyfish Peter created had a position of honor on the Playa. It stood in front of Center Camp in a direct line with the Man and the Temple. Each year, BMORG (the Burning Man Organization), selects an artist to place his or her work here. Almost always, the artist is someone who has had art at Burning Man before and has already impressed the organization and the participants with her/his creativity and talent. The jellyfish had an appropriate jellyfish-look from a distance. Up close, you could see that it was made up of small jellyfish, some 2000 of them, each one carefully placed in a large steel structure that had been built to accommodate them. Glass had been broken, reshaped, and fired to create the small jellyfish. Some eight kilns and a lot of volunteers were kept busy in the process. I followed a set of stairs up into the belly of the jellyfish and them climbed higher on a ladder so I could see how the work had been put together, and take advantage of the height to see out over Burning Man. I made the journey twice— once during the day and once at night.
Back in the 1800s, the challenge of creating animation was solved by a device known as a zoetrope. Slits were carved in a cylindrical device that contained still representatives of a bird in flight, a horse running, or some other action sequence. Several representations of the bird, horse, etc. would be included opposite each slit in a slightly different stage of movement. The cylinder was then turned rapidly with an individual looking through the slits as they passed by his eyes. The result was an illusion of motion.
A similar illusion was created when we were kids by having the illustrations drawn on separate pages of a small book. We would rapidly flip through the pages with the same results. You wouldn’t believe what Mickey and Minnie were up to. Bad mice! The books weren’t anything we wanted to take home to our parents. I don’t have a clue where they came from, but so much for the vaunted innocence and safety of the 1950s.
The Bay Area artist Peter Hudson, or “Hudzo,” as he bills himself, has taken the zoetrope idea to new heights by using life-size figures and strobe-like lights to achieve the movement effect. His works of art are interactive. People pulling ropes or riding bikes in unison cause the art piece to rotate and give the desired effect. He’s had several different works at Burning Man.
This year he returned to an earlier piece that featured Charon, the ferryman of Greek Mythology, who transported dead Greeks across the River Styx. The Greeks would put a coin in the mouth of their dead loved ones to pay Charon. No coin, no transport! The poor were left to wander for a hundred years or so on the wrong side of the river. Once across, the dead would make their way past Cerberus, the three-headed dog, into Hades where they would exist forevermore as shades. Cerberus wasn’t there to keep them out; he was there to keep them in. And he was really good at it. If you’ve watched the Harry Potter series, you have a good idea of what a three-headed dog might look like— and how it might drool. My old Basset Hound Socrates didn’t have three heads, but he did have the drooling part down pat, especially if we were eating cheese. When he shook his head to clear the drool, it would slime all four walls of our small apartment… and us.
I was out exploring in the Playa on Horse with No Name and had dismounted to check out some art when a Burner said to me, “Look this dragonfly just landed on my hand. It must be lost.” Indeed, a dragonfly had landed on the hand of the guy who looked like a long-time Burner. They come with a certain patina. I dutifully took a photo.
Maybe it was fate. Shortly afterwards I came on a sculpture of a large dragonfly at the head of a whole lot of little ones that were escaping from a bottle held up three, headless guys. Acolytes, I was informed. The piece, titled Flight of Illumination, was created by Iron Monkey Arts out of Seattle. The acolytes, so the story went, had gone their own way but learned that working together was better. “The world is cold and lonely when you are a self-centered dick,” the literature about the sculpture told me. So be it. We can all use a little illumination.
Bear with me here, for my final sculpture today. This one has to do with 180,000 pennies, attached as fur on (you guessed it) a giant bear known as Ursa Major. If you’ve been around my blog for a while, you may remember Penny the Canadian Goose from a couple of years ago covered with Canadian Pennies. This year, Lisa and Robert Ferguson out of Oakland, California, the creators of the goose, decided to go with a grizzly. The couple met and fell in love at Burning Man in 2008 and have been creating art for the event ever since.
NEXT POST: A look at some murals at Burning Man 2017. You won’t want to miss the cannibal weeny dogs.