by Whatsblem the Pro
On a dry lake bed in the trackless desolation of the Nevada desert, an industrial arts crew assembles a collection of large sculptures with the intention of destroying them in explosions and fire as the gathered crowd looks on. The event is meant as a sort of grand catharsis, a coda for a planet gone stale and mad, revealing and reflecting the dangerous irrelevance of the already-dead culture outside the wasteland, freeing the minds of onlookers from that culture’s tired old bonds and mores, and clearing metaphorical ground to make room for new modes of thinking and living.
Burning Man was not the first event that fit that description, but if you’re thinking of the Cacophony Society, or the Planet X arts collective outside Gerlach, Nevada, then you’re still decades late and a dollar short. The event I’m describing happened in 1962, predating Harvey, Cacophony, Planet X, the punk rock arts scene, and even hippies.
It was 1989 when Cacophonist Kevin Evans joined the Planet X folks for a wind sculpture event in the Black Rock desert. Taking inspiration from the trip, Evans and fellow Cacophonist John Law planned a Labor Day weekend expedition to the same site.
“At that time, I was experimenting with the technique of forcefully augmenting or destroying parts of my artwork as a meditation on impermanence and flexible reaction to sudden change. These concepts fused into a plan to generate a creative, temporary incident in the Black Rock with a central theme, the ritual destruction and immolation of sculptures and art constructed for the event, with the peculiar, empty location as a stage set.
“For an insolvent, young, and naïve art student, this vision seemed far too grand and expensive to accomplish alone. I decided to present the scheme as a Cacophony event, a ‘Zone Trip,’ to fellow Cacophonist John Law. Other members of the group were later recruited (M2, aka Danger Ranger) and logistical planning commenced.
“A few months from the target date of the expedition, many of us from the Cacophony Society attended what was to be the last Baker Beach burn of Burning Man in San Francisco. Fortunately, via the intervention of local authorities, the monolithic figurine was not razed. Amidst chants of ‘burn it anyway!’ and pagan-like drumming, a few of us Cacophonists, including Miss P and Dawn, thought it would be a great idea to invite the architects of the wooden construct along for our voyage to the bizarre setting, making it the biggest, most elaborate piece of firewood – a glorious conflagration.”
While Evans’ account neatly deflates the commonly-held mythos of Larry Harvey as the All-Father of Burning Man, Evans’ idea – consciously or not – was an echo of an event that took place more than a quarter of a century earlier.
“I’ve reached the end, you see, for museums in this kind of thing. I need a place where I can build as big as I want, and destroy as violently. The only two settings I can think of as appropriate are the Sahara and the American Desert. ”
These are the words of Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, quoted in a Saturday Evening Post interview dated April 21st, 1962. Tinguely was referring to his piece entitled Study for an End of the World, No. 2, in which he constructed a Rube Goldberg conglomeration of self-destructing mechanical icons on a sun-blasted playa in the Nevada desert. Tinguely’s art, with its unavoidable references to nuclear war, was quite a bit more politically pointed than Burning Man has ever been. . . but in hindsight, comparisons with both Burning Man and the dire machine conflict perpetrated by Survival Research Laboratories in the late ’70s and early ’80s seem just as unavoidable. His machines, designed as they were to annihilate themselves, provided a counterpoint to nuclear war, to the idiocy and waste inherent in mass production techniques, and to the obsolescence of society and so-called ‘civilization’ itself.
“A scene of triumph, lying under an odor of gunpowder” is how Tinguely described the aftermath of Study for an End of the World, No. 2. . . but feel free to judge for yourself; Tinguely’s burn, which took well over an hour, was documented by an NBC film crew for an episode of David Brinkley’s Journal, a weekly news-oriented television show that aired their footage of Study for an End of the World, No. 2 on April 4th of 1962.