Why Was 'The Art of Burning Man' Cincinnati Art Museum's Highest-Attended Exhibit of All Time?

Did you feel the burn?

click to enlarge Five Ton Crane's "Capitol Theater" - Hailey Bollinger
Hailey Bollinger
Five Ton Crane's "Capitol Theater"

I can tell you how the Cincinnati Art Museum’s record-breaking No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man changed me: Since seeing it, I can’t drive past a gigantic, aesthetically negligible power transmission tower without it reminding me of the great wooden effigy Man, legs and arms extended, set afire at the annual Burning Man event at Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. I’m not suggesting these towers be burned, mind you, only that having this new, beautiful image now implanted in my mind makes them more tolerable. 

Everyone else who saw the No Spectators exhibit, which was organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, during its April 26-Sept. 2 stay in Cincinnati probably has their own story about how the experience affected them. And overall, No Spectators’ stay here changed the definition of what a 21st-century blockbuster art museum show is. 

The Cincinnati Art Museum has reported that fiscal year 2018-19, which ended Aug. 31, saw the highest attendance in the institution’s 133-year history. Some 346,000 people visited; 187,630 of them came during the slightly-more-than-four-month stay of the free No Spectators exhibition. (The numbers don’t perfectly coincide as No Spectators extended into the first two days of the new fiscal year.) By comparison, it surpassed the previous record-setter, 1982-83’s ticketed Treasures from the Tower of London exhibition. And 2018’s ticketed Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China, is now the third highest-attended show, not the second. 

“Art, design and culture are more democratic and universally important than ever,” Museum Director Cameron Kitchin said, via email. “I am thrilled that No Spectators brought the inventive artists and creative makers of Burning Man from the Nevada desert to Cincinnati. I look forward to more experiments with immediacy and connectivity through art.”

Granted a free exhibit will often draw more people than a ticketed one, but there’s a broader observation to make here. The museum’s most popular past shows — Tower of London, Terracotta Army — were firmly rooted in art and civilizational history. They were about what authority figures valued in life and death; they offered spectacular relics and antiquities. 

No Spectators, by contrast, was more about the way we live now. Or, maybe, about the way we want to live now — cooperatively. Its often-interactive wondrous art installations, fantastical costuming and often-humorous art cars and mutant vehicles were all created with sharing in mind. To a point, they were as irreverent and playful as performance or graffiti art. But there was also a deeply poignant, spiritual side. 

Overall, the annual Burning Man event in Nevada (held this year from Aug. 25-Sept. 2) seems to be replacing Woodstock as the quintessentially utopian, humanistic countercultural “festival” (a term its attendees avoid) with 1960s roots, but also with Silicon Valley savvy. 

Burning Man didn’t begin until 1986, when Larry Harvey and friends burned a crudely made wooden object on a San Francisco beach. The 2019 version of Burning Man, which because of its remote location and challenging environment has to limit attendance, was capped at 80,000 people. One thing is clear from No Spectators’ smashing success — many, many more people than have ever attended are now familiar with it. They are inspired by it. 

As an exhibit, No Spectators was well-mounted if not perfect — I saw it at both the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. and here. It benefitted and gained heft from the inclusion of documentation and archival material assembled by Reno’s Nevada Museum of Art (Black Rock Desert is near Reno). 

Not all the actual artworks on display had been at Burning Man previously; some were made specifically for No Spectators by artists who have been at the event in the past. Of these, there were two standouts, in my opinion: Michael Garlington’s and Natalia Bertotti’s “Paper Arch” and Five Ton Crane’s “Capitol Theater.” Of those that had been at Burning Man previously, FoldHaus Art Collective’s “Shrumen Lumen” mushrooms, which opened outward when you stepped on floor pads, were pretty irresistible, especially when you heard reports they still had some desert detritus in their folds.

A new book, Neil Shister’s Radical Ritual: How Burning Man Changed the World, makes clear that the event had to evolve from an early, more anarchic vision of the Nevada desert as a safe place to “fire guns, shoot off explosives and drive cars super-fast” to find its current level of reverence. It still has its hedonistic elements, Shister writes, but not its tolerance of dangerous recklessness. In recent years, the nonprofit Burning Man Project, which was created to oversee the event, has stressed it as a great American experiment in community building. When two Burning Man leaders, Michael Mikel and Katie Hazard, spoke at the museum in June, that was the message that impressed me. 

Really, the aerial photographic image of the temporary city built every year on the playa for the event, semi-circular with a huge beckoning opening, is starting to become as iconic an image as all the nighttime photos of bright lights and surreal art installations. It’s a dream vision of a perfect city made real. 

And I think that vision is one of No Spectators’ allures. We turn to it to see how people build a city out of nothing, without harming either themselves or the environment, and leave room for fun and non-denominational spiritualism. At a time when human-caused climate change is threatening to destroy the way we have lived, Burning Man’s message has a sense of urgency. Can we start over?

The spiritualism is best expressed at Burning Man through its massive temple, where visitors can address sometimes-difficult past remembrances by leaving notes and offerings, and then watching it all burn on the event’s final night. 

Samantha Krukowski — an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning and a Burning Man veteran — tried to rally the community to participate in creating a temple out of honeysuckle. “InVasive” (as it was called), was placed outside the museum and never quite engendered public excitement equal to what was inside.

But it did provide for a nice closing to Cincinnati’s No Spectators experience. Museum director Kitchin, who had visited Burning Man in 2018 to prepare for the exhibit, returned this year with pieces of “InVasive” along with some of the material left on it. And he burned them there. Cincinnati’s temple, the museum says, will “return to nature.” 

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