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  • Special Section IntroductionA Passion to Burn
  • Louis M. Brill

Fire art is like magic. As it has its secrets, there are practitioners who seek out these secrets, exploit them and then put them on a stage to share with audiences.

The appeal of fire is primal and all-powerful. Fire calls to us from the beginning of time—some say it helped to create the earth. It calls as a power of change, as it has helped humans to survive by providing warmth, cooked food and, when necessary, a weapon. At Burning Man, fire calls out as one of the most captivating art forms. It is both paintbrush and canvas in the creation of an art form in which fear and fascination mingle.

Fire art at Burning Man has a long and cherished history, as discussed by LadyBee, art curator of Burning Man, in the essay following. While fire art in various forms (performance and sacrificial rituals) has deep roots in human history, it is through Burning Man that fire art has become a modern expressive form of sculptural creativity. In the early 1990s, when the first Burning Man sculptures were burned, people would always say, "How could you do that?" "How could you burn something that was so beautiful?" That was exactly the point. Is the beauty of Burning Man in its physical form or in the idea of the totality of whatever the Burning Man sculpture represents? The moment in which the Man burns is all the more transcendental as viewers come to terms with the fiery transformation from its physical existence to a spiritual one.

Art Fires the Imagination

Burning the Man as an annual art event has proved to be a great liberation of fire as an art tool. From that singular event, an entire culture of fire art has emerged. Now the fire-art genie is out of the bottle and making magic at Burning Man. Over the years, more Burning Man artists have begun to work with fire and have drawn upon all its powers (fear, destruction, wonderment and transformation) to build a continuing series of fire artworks. At Burning Man, attendees' contact with fire is visceral, sometimes transcendental (as in Kasia Wojnarski's Tunnel Vision) and sometimes terrifying (for example, Kal Spelletich's many fire artworks in which people find themselves very close to the fire). Sometimes it is overpowering, as demonstrated by the Flaming Lotus Girls with The Hand of God, whose ultimate gesture unleashes a geyser of fire that propels itself 150 feet into the air—certainly an unforgettable sight displaying the power and the promise that is fire.

This special section is an opportunity to introduce, categorize, document and discuss some of the great fire art that has flamed and flickered over the years at Burning Man. We can group the fire arts of Burning Man into four categories: Spectacle, Mechanically Controlled Art, Transcendence and Interactivity. In this issue we highlight work in three of these categories. In cases where works could be placed in two or more categories (for example, while The Voice of Fire and the Fire Vortex are mechanical representations of fire art, they are also interactive forms), we have placed each in the category that most strongly represents the spirit of the work. [End Page 323]


Spectacle works are all about "letting go." Huge art installations are built as things of wonder and then liberated in conflagrations that reduce their forms to ash, smoke and a memory of something that was. The Man, David Best's Temples and Pepe Ozan's Opera Towers are some of the architectural forms that have been burned as spectacular fire art.

Mechanically Controlled Art

This variety displays the conjunction of fire and machine, where propane tanks, hoses, solenoid valves, igniters and uninhibited imagination come together in mechanical fire-art fantasies come true. Here, via any number of mechanical assemblages, artists are able to mold and massage the fire's flames according to their creative inspirations. In this form, fire is harnessed with a variety of mechanized flourishes, such as with Lucy Hosking's Satan's Calliope, Tim Black's The Voice of Fire, Therm's Thermokraken and Exxothermia...


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pp. 323-325
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