Sunday, September 16, 2007

Crude Awakening

One of the most memorable pieces at Burning Man was Crude Awakening, a creation of Dan Das Mann and several other artists and pyromaniacs. It was surely the most didactic piece of the entire festival, with a political message we've all gotten for quite some time surely: several steel figures are on their knees, worshipping a wooden oil derrick reaching 90 feet into the sky. Got it? Oil stands head and shoulders above all our other gods - we are a world of petroleum worshippers. Got it? Got it? Anyone here not get it? Okay. Moving on.

The artist invited all of the attendees to gather round on Friday night (later bumped to Saturday night) and watch the oil derrick be consumed in a tower of flame. 450 gallons of kerosene would be pumped into a pilot fire to create an explosion they hoped would be seen for miles.

Got it? Got it? The oil economy is precarious and one day the oil derricks will all fall. Indeed, there is currently speculation that Saudi Arabia's single most important oil field, al-Ghawar, might be drying up.

Okay. Bludgeoning aside, what was most memorable for me were the steel figures. Generally, steel sculpture does not move me. It may appeal to me conceptually, but usually I am left either cold, uninterested, or both. It's just not my favorite medium. Here was an exception. The figures were actually rather beautiful.

For logistical reasons, the much-anticipated "tower of flame" that would burn the derrick was rescheduled from Friday night to Saturday night - one hour after the man burned. Curious decision, since this display would upstage the burning of the man.

After the man burned, the crowds made their way further into the playa and made their way to a perimeter around the derrick, behind safety ropes. A stage was set up here at a short distance, and while they got everything ready to cook the art, one of the best musical performances I heard all week took place as Mutaytor rocked the desert. While they played, Cirque Berzerk danced from ropes and sheets suspended over the stage, like sexy angels flitting around the stars.

There was a very long delay, and there are numerous rumors about what has happening at this point. It had something to do with a fireworks display, and the need to inspect some or all of them at the last minute. At any rate, we waited and waited and waited, and Mutaytor was obliged to play encore after encore. Not that anybody minded.

Finally, the Crude Awakening presentation began with an air raid siren that wailed for several minutes. The sound bounced off the mountains in the distance after the siren ceased. Over the sound system, a musical medley consisting of the national anthem played in a minor key blending into middle-eastern music and various other musical quotes blasted away while a dazzling fireworks display went up all around the derrick. Everyone had seen fireworks before, but the impeccable timing of these fireworks to the music was the more amazing thing.

There was another long pause as they pumped - say it again - 450 gallons of kerosene into a fire to create a gigantic mushroom of flame. The flash and the heat drove everybody back, even the fearless burners.

There was a running joke about Crude Awakening at our camp, which also related to the year's artistic theme. This year's Burning Man theme was "The Green Man." To begin with, any talk of a "green" Burning Man is darkly comical. This was summed up by one of the signs you drive past to enter Burning Man, which said: "If you were green, you would have walked here." Can you imagine Edward Abbey's wroth at our conceit? Bad enough we're driving all these combustion engines out onto the desert floor and firing up generators to power our huge stereos, dropping "Matter Out Of Place" (MOOP) which volunteers spend MONTHS cleaning up as best they can.

Add to that, a piece that alerts us to our dependency on petroleum and the corporations that sell it, by going to a corporation and obtaining a vast amount of petroleum product in order to produce a fireball? Our joke went something like this:

"Take that, corporations!"

"I'm sorry - could you repeat that?"

The tower of flame went woooooosh and made a spectacular finish to the evening as the derrick burned and burned and finally fell to the ground.

The real scandal came the next day. There was to be a final act to this piece, you see, in which the artists erected something in place of the fallen derrick. Accounts vary as to what took place. I do not have an official story but parts of the episode took place in full view of Black Rock City.

What I have heard or read is that the artists originally intended to put up a steel tree the day after the fire. At some point this year, the artists decided instead that they would plant a real tree - in fact, a California redwood. They spent a great deal of money buying the tree, uprooting it, and trucking it to the gates of Black Rock City where they were halted.

Incredulous outrage: Are you crazy?! That thing can't survive out here! We don't bring non-native vegetation onto the playa! Look at all those needles - every single one of them is a piece of MOOP. Get this thing out of here and WATER IT!!

The tree sat on its oversized flatbed truck in "D" lot for days, according to some accounts, because they needed to apply for a new permit to drive the tree across Nevada again. At some point Sunday morning, some think around the time there was a medical emergency around the exit, the tree was quietly brought into Black Rock City. The artists had actually started planting it when they were stopped and turned away. Some people actually got pictures of the spectacle - a redwood being planted in the desert of Nevada.

I know not where the tree went, or if it will survive. I will state confidently, however, that Crude Awakening is one of the most costly works of art I have ever seen or heard of.

A perfect analogy to the dark side of the "environmentally conscious" Burning Man.


Ji Hyang said...

like having lots of big trucks burning diesel at our green Tae Go Sah-- as well as lots of intercontinental MOOP.

The picture looks monastic--is it current-- or specific to desert pilgrimages

Algernon said...

Not a monastic environment. But that reminds me of a Burning Man story that will come in an upcoming installment.