Saturday, September 08, 2007

Big Rig Jig

As reported earlier, we arrived in "Black Rock City" a couple of days before the official opening of Burning Man in order to build an art installation. As work on our little Museum progressed, other works were being hammered, welded, folded, erected, glued, posted, soldered, and otherwise put into place in various locations around the playa.

Our first night, Chris, Sarah, and I took a ride on bicycles across the desert underneath a bright, nearly full moon. We took a tour of the camp city that was just beginning to take shape, the "center camp" where various message boards and services are available, and the esplenade, a thoroughfare that bridges the camping city and the playa.

Out on that playa, a project off in the distance seemed particularly large. The area was flooded with light, and there seemed to be a squadron of people working at a fast pace to get a large project ready. Chris was off in a shot - as he often is, the fellow is very difficult to keep up with - saying, "Big Rig Jig! That's the Big Rig Jig!"

The Big Rig Jig is a sculpture by a team of artists and welders headed by New York sculptor Mike Ross. For material they used two oil tankers, actual 18-wheelers, which they cut into pieces and welded into a striking image that might resemble a dragonfly, or a bizarre collision, or a ballet:

The team appeared to have fallen behind schedule, and were furiously working long hours as a growing populatino of Burners rooted for them and offered assistance. Conceptually, the piece is crystal clear just at the visual level. We theatre artists look for images that communicate beyond words, and this image gets at something about our economic predicament - the oil economy, in particular.

Moreover, this is Burning Man. This is not a museum where one is roped off from the art, experience it from an enforced distance, perhaps by stantions and velvety rope. On the playa, art is there for you to touch - and burners are not shy about this, as a rule. An oft-repeated principle there is "participate, do not spectate." People who have made the trip to Burning Man expect to interact with the art, and they will. You can only hope they will do so with respect.

For the most part, people do respect the art. Of course, with an attendance that reached 48,000 people, you will get some who do not appreciate a difference between interacting and destroying. Our museum, for instance, get tagged very soon after we built it:

And yet, for all the many, many visitors to our museum, the art inside was left alone:

Frequently during the week, I thought of Umberto Crenca, who once told me it was very important for art to be able to defend itself physically the way some things in nature do. He thought it was great when a painting had spikes coming out of it or sharp edges. We joked about exploding sculptures. At Burning Man, some of the sculptures DO explode. Sometimes there are even injuries. Between this and the harsh desert conditions, the unwary can easily die here.

Walking up to the Big Rig Jig and touching it, there is a very interesting sensation of having the front grille of an 18-wheeler hanging just over your head. There is yet an extra dimension: the viewer can actually climb inside the piece, up through the first bend and to the very end of the first tanker. Inside, the sculptors arranged some green leaves (perhaps an allusion of some kind to the fossilized material from which we get our petroleum), although the inside is mostly a maze of steel.

It took a few days of very hard work, but they finished the piece in the middle of the week. By then I was nursing a very large and unhappy blister on my left foot (they called it "playa foot"), but no matter. I had to limp out there and climb the Big Rig Jig; I had been waiting for days.

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