No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man

The Renwick Gallery brings the legendary desert festival to Washington, DC.

I’ve always been slightly intrigued by Burning Man – but just slightly. The enormous, kinetic, electric sculptures and environments that artists bring to the desert festival look spectacular in photos. But like many multimedia developers, I prefer my environments to be air conditioned and dust-free….

So I was happy to have the opportunity to visit No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC. But without the sand, heat, and hedonism, would something be lost in translation?

Paper Arch

As the first U.S. building designed specifically to be a museum, the Renwick is one of the smaller Smithsonian sites, but has recently become a hotspot for immersive installation art. After a two-year renovation, it reopened in 2015 with the WONDER exhibition, filled with room-sized works that transformed the circa-1874 galleries into Instagram-friendly spectacles. Having shed its identity as a home for decorative arts, the Renwick makes a great, unexpected venue for No Spectators.

Entering the building, I was immediately drawn to Paper Arch by Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti, a gigantic triumphal arch collaged with photographic cutouts that overflow into the sky. Hidden within are a series of cryptic peep-show vignettes. On reading the label, I learned that this artwork never appeared at Burning Man – it was commissioned by the Renwick specifically for the room. This was a recurring factor, as much of the original Burning Man art is outsized or emphemeral, having literally been set afire at the festival’s end.

Truth is Beauty

The next gallery featured a number of smaller elements, including intricate jewelery and costumes. In the center of the room stood a 18-foot tall nude female figure, Truth is Beauty by Marco Cochrane, composed of a illuminated stainless steel mesh. It was visually impressive, but I wondered if its stated feminist aims would get lost when viewed among Burning Man’s hedonistic, ‘techbro’ culture.

Next was a room featuring mobile, vehicle-sized artworks, including an elaborate metal dragon, a three-seated bicycle with a zoetrope wheel, and a portable art-deco movie theater showing a faux-dadaist film. Each was inventive and impeccably crafted, but the steampunk-meets-cirque aesthetic of the pieces didn’t inspire me.

A smaller gallery, lined with chalkboards by Candy Chang, prompted visitors to reply to the open question: “Before I die I want to____________.” It was simple and effective, and for a show that touted ‘no spectators,’ was the first glimpse of participatory interaction.

In the center of the ground floor, a small gallery featured complex, psychedelic digital artworks by Android Jones. Here, within geodesic structures, visitors could embark on a virtual reality journey to the middle of Burning Man. The media looked great, but wasn’t terribly immersive, as the most interesting visuals were far away at the horizon, flattening their three-dimensionality.

Leo Villareal

Heading upstairs, I found myself transfixed by Leo Villareal’s chandelier of LEDs and mirrors, which hangs above the Renwick’s central staircase. I tend to have a visceral reaction to this type of art – it doesn’t communicate much, but I’m dazzled by its spectacle. I later learned that, though Villareal has presented art at Burning Man in the past, the chandelier pre-dates this show, and was in fact installed for the WONDER exhibition… but it was still one of my favorite works in the Renwick.

A small gallery on the upper floor featured a densely-packed mini-exhibition on the history of Burning Man. Filled with printed ephemera, photos, and artifacts, this gallery was a bit disappointing in its ultra-traditional approach, making the festival’s history seem almost… boring. Still, I understand its creators’ instinct to use these techniques to help canonize the erstwhile ‘outsider’ event.


Spectacle returned as I entered the Renwick’s Grand Salon, which had been transformed into Temple by David Best. Intricate, baroque laser-cut wooden surfaces, delicately lit, filled the walls and ceiling of the room. Here visitors were encouraged to write a remembrance on a small piece of wood and place it within the structure. This was another artwork commissioned by the museum, as Best’s Temple structures are burned down annually at each festival’s end. Still, this was one of the most immersive experiences in the show, and the closest I felt to truly being transported.

The next gallery featured a custom LED display in the shape of a six-pointed star, suspended from the ceiling and facing down. Visitors were encouraged to lie on the floor and view it from below. Some of its animations were mesmerizing; others, featuring silhouettes of female dancers, made me feel like I was in a Vegas nightclub.

On of my favorite installations came next: Shrumen Lumen by FoldHaus Art Collective. Here, a garden of giant mushroom structures, internally lit with color-changing LEDs, would occasionally ‘breathe’, compressing and expanding when triggered by visitor presence. Like Villareal’s chandelier, I don’t have a great reason for liking this. It doesn’t ‘mean’ anything – except perhaps with reference to hallucinogens – but it’s cool, and it’s gorgeous.

Next, a small room featured a micro-scale burning man sculpture, surrounded by a kinectic orchestra of miniature gamelans – it was unusual and effective, and it was nice to see work that engaged more of the senses. Finally, I entered another Instagram-cool gallery filled with a set of giant, intricately patterned polyhedron lanterns, casting dramatic shadows and light across the ceilings and floors. I took a lot of pictures here, as it seems did everyone else.

After leaving the gallery, I took a short walking tour to view some public artworks that accompany the exhibition. Half of these are elaborate lantern structures, which don’t quite register in daylight. The others include some beautiful statuary (a large bust of Maya Angelou, a grizzly bear covered in penny currency), but nothing that distinctively connects them to their Burning Man origins.


Once I got over the fact that much of the artwork was commissioned and was never presented at Burning-Man, I really enjoyed the exhibition. I’m conflicted that some of my favorite elements of the show are the most Instagrammable moments. The largest scale pieces, particularly those that played with light and motion, appealed to my senses, if not my brain. It all made me feel, but I can’t say it made me think.

Did I get an authentically ‘Burning Man’ experience? I don’t think so – these pieces would fit well into any exhibition of contemporary installation art. Am I inspired to visit Burning Man? Hell no…. But in a decade or so, I’d happily line up to see No Spectators 2.

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man

Through January 21, 2019
Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum

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