Tripping the Ballz Fantastic: On Being an Art Critic at Burning Man

Shotgun Review

Tripping the Ballz Fantastic: On Being an Art Critic at Burning Man

By Larissa Archer September 24, 2014

There's something disheartening about returning from Burning Man to resume your practice as an art critic. The "First Thursday" back, if you've recovered in time to attend (which I did not this year), is underwhelming. It's not because the art on display is worse or less radical than what you've seen in Black Rock City. Or because you won't find any art that you can pee or have sex or take a nap on. Or because nothing will be set on fire. Or because everyone is wearing pants.

As pat as it might sound, it's because you are different. You spend a week in a physically punishing, sensorially ravishing environment where to enjoy even non-interactive art—of which there is very little—necessitates surmounting a litany of discomforts and disorienting factors. You're hot, lashed by corrosive alkaline dust, dehydrated, underslept, and off your tits. You haven’t checked email or Facebook in days. Your breakfast was likely champagne and Emergen-C.

In such harsh, isolated conditions, anything you can't experience in the moment is no longer important. Every performance or art installation you witness represents a sublimation of the spoiled body's nagging, an overcoming of the niggling mundanities that usually distract and disperse your attentions. When you stand in front of one of Black Rock City's many art projects (or crawl under it, or sleep inside it, etc.), you feel you've earned your place there, like you're able to take in more of it because there is less of you in the way. The low-pitched drone of everyday concerns—career, relationships, groceries—falls silent.

The author dancing in front of John Chandler’s Aztec Car. Photo: Wesley Frederick.

In Black Rock City, you are at your most open, patient, and focused. You spend more time with an artwork than you would in a gallery or museum. You observe other people regarding it and guess at the thoughts passing behind their eyes; no Burner will think you're strange for staring. You revisit pieces at different times of day, noting their transformations under the change in light, temperature, and peripheral noise. You also become an aficionado of destruction, discovering that there can be as much beauty in a work of art while it burns to the ground as it possessed while it stood.

This attentiveness is difficult to replicate in the default world, where the body might be under less duress but external distractions are far more numerous and aggressive. The challenge for the art critic returning from Burning Man, then, is to keep the eyes she earned on the playa: to patiently observe the objects of her gaze in all their subtler incarnations, unbothered by the quotidian, as if her body were chastised by the elements and her mind left tired but open.

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