Burning Man Comes to the Cincinnati Art Museum with All Its Requisite Mutant Art Vehicles, Giant Installations and Creative Costumes

"No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man" from Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. travels to Cincinnati in April

click to enlarge Foldhaus, "Shrumen Lumen," 2016 - Photo: Ron Blunt
Photo: Ron Blunt
Foldhaus, "Shrumen Lumen," 2016

Burning Man, one of the most radical and artful experiments in American community-building ever undertaken, will be sharing some of its fantastical art and fascinating artifacts with the Cincinnati Art Museum, starting April 26. Admission to the special exhibition will be free, in keeping with the community-building spirit.

The art museum today announced that No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man will be coming from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. Its press release promises the large exhibit will range “from giant mutant art vehicles and creative costuming to immersive gallery-sized installations.”

As the press release describes it, the annual Burning Man event “has been called ‘an experience in collective dreaming.’ It’s a cultural movement and a thriving temporary city of more than 70,000 active participants from all over the globe who gather in the dust of the Black Rock Desert outside Reno, Nevada, for seven days.”

“It is one of the most influential movements in contemporary American art and culture,” says Cameron Kitchin, Cincinnati Art Museum’s Louis and Louise Dieterle Nippert director, in the release. “The visual culture created in conjunction with the Burning Man gathering each year is a democratic and inclusive model of artistic expression. Working with the thinkers and artists who create the culture challenges the very notion of an art museum.”

The annual Burning Man, an event that has its roots in the San Francisco counterculture of the 1980s, started at Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in 1990. The flat part of the desert, where much of the activity takes place and the parade float-sized artworks are displayed, is known as the “playa.” Burning Man occurs during late August into early September and culminates with the celebratory burning of a towering effigy.

The pieces in the Cincinnati exhibition, some quite large, will be placed throughout the art museum’s galleries, similar to the way the artist Nick Cave’s imaginative “suits” were displayed for his 2012 show, Meet Me at the Center of the Earth. No Spectators will open in two phases — besides the April 26 start, more art will be unveiled on June 7. Both phases will close Sept. 2.

Having seen the exhibit in D.C., this writer can attest that the art installations in this show are unforgettable. One, “Capitol Theater,” was created for the exhibit in Washington by more than 60 artists known collectively as Five Ton Crane, and is a bus turned into a lovely retro movie theater showing silent films. For those in a more psychedelic mood, there is FoldHaus’ 2016 “Shrumen Lumen,” consisting of illuminated and multi-colored giant mushrooms.

No Spectators was organized by Nora Atkinson, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. David J. Brown is the guest curator at the Cincinnati Art Museum. He told CityBeat, in a statement, “When Cameron called to ask me to take the lead in bringing No Spectators to Cincinnati, I jumped at the chance to shape this unique exhibition within the museum’s stunning galleries and create opportunities to explore the Burning Man culture, its impact, and its community in meaningful ways.”

According to the press release, the exhibition also will feature jewelry, video and photography by artists and designers who participate in Burning Man. Ephemera, archival materials and photographs will be on view in a companion exhibition, City of Dust: The Evolution of Burning Man, organized by the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno that traces Burning Man’s origins.

No Spectators is produced in collaboration with the Burning Man Project, the nonprofit organization responsible for producing the annual Nevada event. After Cincinnati, the exhibition moves to the Oakland Museum of California from Oct. 12-Feb.16, 2020.

The name “No Spectators” comes from a long-standing saying at Burning Man. Curator Atkinson says, in the release, “You are encouraged to fully participate. It’s all about being there, being fully present and not just observing. There are no outsiders. Everyone is part of the experience.”

Public programs will accompany the exhibition here, with more information about them available in spring on Cincinnati Art Museum’s website (cincinnatiartmuseum.org). The museum will have a community celebration to kick off the exhibition at its Art After Dark even 5-10 p.m. on April 26*.

Meanwhile, University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning is hoping to get involved with local activities surrounding the exhibit. Samantha Krukowski — an associate DAAP professor who is a Burning Man veteran and has edited the book Playa Dust: Collected Stories from Burning Man — will have students in her Special Topics in Landscape Architecture studio and charette working with the museum and the Walnut Hills neighborhood, connected to No Spectators. They will collaborate on a local version of one of the Nevada event’s most significant and serious elements: the building and subsequent burning of the temple.

Her plans are to dovetail with museum’s planned Art Climb project, which aims to more closely connect the hilltop institution with the corner of  Gilbert Avenue and Eden Park Drive in Walnut Hills via a stairway. Krukowski wants to have her students and others collect the cleared honeysuckle from that space to build a large temple when No Spectators opens on April 26. Visitors might want to leave offerings, as they would at an altar or a memorial. 

She then wants that temple — or a second one — to be set afire on Sept. 2, the last day of the Cincinnati exhibit. “It’s utilizing ritual fire to renew a site,” she says of the temple burning process.

*A previous version of this story stated the Art After Dark event was 5-8 p.m. We were wrong. You now have two more hours to party.

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