Embrace Sketch by Killbuck
Evocative works of art embrace us; they inspire action, thought, and emotion; and even subvert the dominant paradigm. Matt Schultz and the Pier Group’s 2014 Burning Man sculpture, Embrace, embodies all of those qualities. Rising from the playa, Embrace is a 72- foot sculpture of two people entwined in a bond of affection and acceptance. The wooden, cathedral-like structure will cradle all who enter and provide a space for celebrating relationships of all kinds and remembering, with joy, those who can no longer be physically embraced.
The Pier Group have created wonderful art on the playa before, including The Pier, Pier 2, and the Ichthyosaur Puppet Project.
Matt is also the Executive Director of an inclusive art space called The Generator, located in Sparks (Reno), Nevada. This is the heart of the Embraceproject, but the actual hearts that will light the inner beauty of the couple are being created by crews in Vancouver and Portland.
The Ignite team had the pleasure of speaking with Matt about his inspiration for Embrace and the challenges of building a large sculpture at Burning Man.
Is this project going to be almost like a second Temple?
Matt: We have a huge dialogue behind all of this. We wanted to try to take the idea of Temple and flip it a bit away from so much of the feeling of this release from death. I think it is release in that way that you kind of let it go and forget about it. We wanted people to think about those that they care about.
Instead of thinking about loss, we wanted people to smile for the good times they shared with people. That’s why Embrace, for us, is about the moment. It’s a Temple dedicated to “right now.” It’s a Temple that gives for your relationships in the moment. Within the context we originally defined for Temple, we wanted to embrace and define a broader experience for participants when it comes to relating to death and sorrow and despair.
We want to give people a palette for some more positive emotions, too, in relationship to that. This project has been straddling these two worlds and one of the worlds it has been straddling is this traditional need that the Temple appeals to. It’s a core functional piece of our city. The Temple allows a lot of us who don’t have religion, who don’t have an organized body to turn to, to have a place to express that grief, to express a sense of spirituality, to release from challenges that we don’t have anywhere else to go to. That was the kind of first place we were straddling with Embrace.
The second place we were stepping to was that we wanted to create a new space at Burning Man – a space that is focused on the here and now – being present in your relationships, being present with the people you love, with the people you hate, being present in your relationship with yourself. We really feel like that part of the idea was so complementary to the first idea. You have your release, that kind of time when you let go, then you have the analysis of it, the chance to take time to think and reflect on those moments in your life. I really like that duality.
I think initially when we didn’t get Temple, we as a crew were pretty bummed out, but a lot of our crew were 50/50. Some of us wanted Temple, some of us didn’t. I think maybe it was an ego blow for us more than anything, but once we realized that we weren’t the Temple, we found a lot of joy in it. Not being Temple is something that I never realized would have a positive nature to it.
When we were vying for Temple, we had a lot of really great positive feedback about our project, but within that positive feedback, we had a handful of mean, negative, dark things said about this project. That was really challenging. None of us are getting paid to do this project. We are doing it as a giant “thank you” to a community who opened their hearts to us and welcomed us in.
We saw elements of the same community shunning us and telling us we had horrible ideas, yelling and screaming at us and being hurt by what we were proposing. I can only speak for myself, but part of the reason I started doing art at Burning Man is that it was the first community where I felt welcomed in and where I felt I had a real home. The Pier and the ship are so innocuous. They’re fun, but they are more pieces that just evoke senses of wonder. They are part of a dream scape. They’re pieces of surreal thrown on the playa that don’t actually elicit any strong emotions outside of the childlike desire to explore.
Embrace is certainly a more interesting piece from my perspective. It was challenging reading some of the Facebook threads and feeling like people really wanted to attack me for this idea.
That’s too bad that has to happen. Nobody can every please everyone, with anything that they do, but to be attacked by people is sad, especially since your project is all about love. What’s to complain about?
Matt: The people who were complaining had a realistic complaint. Most of the people were complaining about things they dealt with in the real world that they felt were reflected in my art piece. One of the biggest kind of critiques leveled against it was that it was too hetero-normative, which was a term that I was not familiar with before I started this project.
That took me for a loop because I have always kind of struggled with how I identified within my gender norms. While I am very much male, there are times when I am far too female for normal society. I’ve been critiqued my whole life for that. When we designed Embrace, we designed it to be much more androgynous. We didn’t want it to be a man and a woman; we wanted it to be a sculpture where people could identify with it any way that they liked. If they wanted, it could be a mother and a son, a father and a grandpa, a husband and a wife, or brothers or sisters. At the same time, we wanted to make sure that it still seemed human. I didn’t want it to be too incredibly neutral. I didn’t want them to look like a sculpture of a pair of elves. So I wanted to have some musculature, some curves and some shape.
The smaller one is more slender, but the smaller one has a broader chest and no hips, while the larger one is more muscular with a much shallower chest and broader hips. They both have androgynous features and they both have gender-specific features.
It was really funny because most of the conversations I’ve had, people say, it’s clearly a man and a woman because one is taller than the other. I can’t count the number of people I’ve looked at and said, name one relationship you’ve had in your life where you are the same size as the other person. Size does not delineate gender.
That’s so weird because I’ve been writing about transgender issues lately. I’m not transgendered, but my friend is and some other people l know are. I know that transgender people face a lot of challenges, but from the messages I get from them, I doubt they would be upset by Embrace.
Matt: Most of the people complaining have been straight white men. There is this projection of identity which is very interesting. A large majority of the friends that I have are kind of outside of the hetero norm – they see a lot of positive in this piece. Within that, as an artist, I don’t want everyone to love my piece. I had to learn to grow a thicker skin. If I’m going to be disappointed that people that are throwing barbs at me for making a piece that compels them to like it or not like it, I can’t at the same time be happy, or compelled, or so proud that a dialogue is forming from the piece.
I think I have to accept that when making a piece of art, you’re inherently communicating a message and communicating it very loudly, at least when you are building on the scale that we are. We are screaming the concept at the top of our lungs, but we’re not refining that concept. We’re letting people choose what that concept is.
I don’t know if I really have a right to complain about that concept in that manner because of the simple fact that the narrative is beautiful and blossoming. A good narrative should have both negative and positive aspects to it, and that’s what I always wanted to do with my art. If all you want is to make innocuous art that no one complains about, you aren’t creating any conversation.
Option two is you can create interesting art that some people are going to hate and then they are going to reflect that hate upon me. There isn’t a lot of middle ground there, especially with the American relationship to art. At the same time, if I am going to be yelling from the top of my lungs and building some giant sculpture dedicated to relationships, I should expect a little blowback from people who have had difficulty with relationships.
…I don’t think people realize this, but Embrace is built by a bunch of loners and outcasts who just wanted to belong. I think we formed this group of artists that we have here because we wanted to create a place where anyone could come and belong and we could do something incredible and build something really fantastic. Embrace encompasses this bigger idea. Embrace is a project that at the end of the day is less about the final result and more about the process with the community, friends, neighbors, with new people from different countries, with men and women, children and the elderly. It’s this chance for all of us to come together and make something and smile and laugh and make new friends and share hugs and stare at this giant thing we’ve built at the end of the day. And smile and laugh and do it again.
The Interior of Embrace with Two Hearts Sketch by Killbuck
And you are actually working with people in Vancouver and Portland – different groups working together. How does that work?
Matt: What we did with the ship, we tried to create more of an open collaboration and we created a loose framework of what we needed to populate the inside of it and we had our satellite crews populating it and that worked very well. What we are doing on Embrace is, we opened up the collaboration even more, so Kevan Christiaens and myself thought it would be an original idea for the project to be these two giant tree people in an embrace as cathedrals inside.
Kelsey Owens, a dear friend of ours, had a dream that they had giant hearts inside of them, so we integrated that. Another friend, Bernie Beauchamp, thought it would be a great to have a hole in the top, so you could see the stars. What we did and what we are continuing to do on this project is welcome feedback and integrate it. It has this chance to be the whole crew’s project; it’s not just my project.
We have two hearts. We already had this established crew in Vancouver – a bunch of dear friends who worked on multiple projects with us. We’ve had a small contingent of crew members in Portland, so we figured we’d have a Portland and Vancouver crew and they can build the hearts. The only guidance on the hearts was that I wanted them to be a human heart shape, not a cartoon shape and I would like them to be some kind of chandelier light-creating source that was about the size of a small car. They also had to be a certain weight. They’ve just developed from there independently. I have no idea what the hearts are going to look like. It’s really incredible seeing that kind of collaboration open up and to have three crews in different cities working on this project.
Can you tell me about the Generator, where you are building Embrace?
Matt: I’m the executive director of the Generator. We’ve got four board members and our funder. We wanted to create a space where all the tools and resources were accessible for anyone to use and anyone to create with. We wanted to carry the ethos of Burning Man, most importantly being open and inclusive and de-commodified to a real world space to see how it would work.
It’s been an absolutely incredible experiment. The number of projects and amazing pieces of art and the people that have come through here who have learned and done something new is absolutely phenomenal.
Embrace Sketch by Killbuck