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  • Playing with Fire
  • Christine (a.k.a. LadyBee) Kristen (bio)

Fire as an art form is evolving in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, where many Burning Man artists explore the creation and manipulation of fire in their installations. Sculptors, engineers, geeks and pyromaniacs experiment with open fires, pressurized gases and pyrotechnics to produce mesmerizing and beautiful works of art.

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Article Frontispiece. The Man burns, Douglas fir with steel nails, brackets, fasteners and neon, 40 × 4 × 9 ft, 2005. Designed by Larry Harvey and built by volunteers.

© Larry Harvey. Photo © Don Jackson <>

Mysterious, powerful and threatening; why does fire so compel us? We cannot contain it, we cannot hold it directly in our hands, nor can we withstand its touch. It warms and serves us but can also destroy us. It never stands still; its myriad shapes are fluid, ever changing and hypnotic. It can only be fully experienced in the moment of its existence. To consider it as an art material is challenging; our need for permanence in art would seem to rule it out. Yet there is a growing interest in using fire in art, and Burning Man provides the perfect environment in which to experiment with this nascent art form. The flat, featureless Black Rock Desert floor and its surrounding darkness provide a safe and dramatic backdrop for dangerous art. Burning Man's Performance Safety Team makes sure that all fire art is created within parameters developed and refined over years of experience in working with flammable materials. The team is composed of artists who have safely and successfully displayed fire art in previous years of the event, trained firefighters, pyrotechnicians and other industry professionals. Burning Man's humble beginning, in which one wooden figure was burned, has evolved into an event featuring hundreds of art installations, including fire art made with pressurized gasses, digitally controlled explosions and pyrotechnics.

In the early years of the Burning Man event, many artists chose to burn their art in a gesture of freedom, non-attachment and letting go. Fire was the culmination and death of the art, destroying months of work and planning in a brief blaze of glory. In 1993, 1994 and 1995, Pepe Ozan built playa mud lingams that functioned as chimneys; they were filled with wood at the bases. As they burned, participants danced wildly around them, the mud glowing and the metal support structures finally weakening to the point of collapse. This work anticipated the ritual use of fire in Ozan's later operas, which took place on elaborate playa mud sculptures/stage sets. The L.A. Cacophony Society was one of the first groups to bring installations that met their end in flames. They created Spontaneous Combustion Theater in 1994, Toyland in 1995, Tinseltown in 1996 and finally the ambitious Small After All World in 1999 (Fig. 1). These burn performances mocked and destroyed American cultural icons—clowns, childhood toys, the Hollywood film industry and Disneyland—in fiery displays of exuberant anarchy. Most installations are no longer burned, and those that are must be placed on burn platforms that protect the playa surface from burn scars. Although concern for the safety of the public has imposed certain limitations on the fire art at Burning Man, one can still use fire in extravagant and dangerous ways not seen in ordinary settings. While those with access to private property may experiment with small fire installations, large-scale fire art is virtually impossible to create in any venue, public or private, without attracting the fire department or the police. Trying to get fire art permitted, even in a safe location with safety measures in place, is extremely difficult, particularly in our fearful post-9/11 climate. Burning Man enables participants to experience fire in ways forbidden to us in our home environments or in gallery or museum settings.

Fire as Ritual and Theater

Perhaps the most direct and simple use of fire on the playa is the burning of large-scale installations, usually connected to a ritual representing cleansing, purification and release. The central ritual of the event is the burning of the Man, the 40-ft...


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pp. 332-337
Launched on MUSE
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