Larry Harvey, the Man Behind Burning Man, Is Dead at 70


The festival’s 10 official principles, written by Mr. Harvey, include civic responsibility, communal effort, gifting and immediacy. But the one cited most often is radical self-expression.

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The finale of Burning Man, the globally celebrated anti-establishment, anti-consumerist festival that Mr. Harvey began with a friend, in Nevada in 2013.

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Andy Barron/The Reno Gazette-Journal, via Associated Press

Early on, the event became popular with the digital subculture, lending credence to the belief that primitivism — even ironic primitivism — and great technological leaps make happy bedfellows. Mr. Harvey saw a connection.

“Both Burning Man and the internet make it possible to regather the tribe of mankind,” he told The Times in 1997. He also saw a “deep parallel between desert and cyberspace.”

The festival’s so-called gift economy is central to the experience. There may be whiskey bars and sandwich shops at Burning Man, but everything is free. Burners, as the participants call themselves, offer their products and services as gifts. (The only things for sale, by the organizers, are coffee and ice.) No one is allowed to display a corporate logo or even wear one on a T-shirt.

Mr. Harvey preferred to call the system a “gift culture,” because visitors spend plenty of money ahead of time on the supplies they bring. But he believed even a temporary experience with that culture was worthwhile — to counter economic norms.

“If all your self-worth and esteem is invested in how much you consume, how many likes you get or other quantifiable measures,” he told The Atlantic in 2014, “the desire to simply possess things trumps our ability or capability to make moral connections with people around us.”

Mr. Harvey was born on Jan. 11, 1948, and adopted as an infant by Author Harvey and the former Katherine Langford. His parents were farmers near Portland, Ore., and his father also worked as a carpenter. In an article that Mr. Harvey wrote for the British newspaper The Independent in 2014, he said that he and his brother, Stewart, who was also adopted, “felt like exchange students: Everyone treated us well, but we didn’t quite fit.”

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At the 2006 Burning Man festival, “giraffes” from Cape Town met a giant “cat.”

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Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Rural life did not suit him, and his parents were not exactly spiritual adventurers. “The heart can really expire under those conditions,” Mr. Harvey told Inc. magazine in 2012. “I always felt like I was looking at the world from the outside.”

He escaped by serving in the Army. He gave college (Portland State University) a try, with the help of the G.I. Bill, but was disillusioned by what he saw as his professors’ small-mindedness.

He and a girlfriend, Janet Lohr, now a Burning Man executive, moved to San Francisco in the 1970s, and he took jobs as a bike messenger, a taxi driver, a cook and eventually a landscape gardener. He made friends with artists who were making a living as blue-collar workers.

The first Burning Man, held at Baker Beach (famous for its Golden Gate Bridge views and nude-sunbathing section), was a cozy affair hosted by Mr. Harvey and a friend, Jerry James. It consisted of burning a scrap-lumber statue of an eight-foot-tall man and was attended by fewer than a dozen people — including Mr. Harvey’s son, Tristan, who was 5 — although a crowd soon gathered to watch. It was a summer solstice celebration; Mr. Harvey sometimes said it also commemorated a romantic breakup.

Mr. Harvey was married once, briefly, to Patricia Johnson, and he raised their son, Tristan, who survives him, as a single father. He is also survived by his brother, Stewart.

Mr. Harvey remained fully involved with his creation until his stroke, supervising design decisions and choosing this year’s theme, “I, Robot.”

The 2018 festival, scheduled for Aug. 26-Sept. 3, will go on, the organization said in a statement: “If there’s one thing we know for sure, Larry wants us to burn the man.”

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Will the Spirit of Burning Man Art Survive in Museums?


There were other challenges. How does Burning Man’s principle of radical participation translate to the “look, don’t touch” propriety of museums? And will the festival learn to speak the institutional language of “outreach and education”?

Those challenges were part of the show’s appeal for both parties. Touching will be encouraged for most works, and outreach is precisely what Burning Man is after. In the process, both cultural institution and countercultural event may re-evaluate their relationships to the mainstream. “That’s going to be a really cool outcome if the lines get blurred,” said Kim Cook, Burning Man’s director of art and civic engagement. “If we’re not so far out and the museum isn’t so far in.”

Ms. Atkinson, who recently attended her first Burning Man, contrasted that experience with the frenzied marketplace of Art Basel Miami, another annual fair of similar size and duration. In Miami, art is a product; an investment. At Burning Man, art is a manifestation of communal values, like inclusion and participation, that generate playful work emphasizing interaction and feeling over economics.

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In the desert, “Shrumen Lumen,” 2016, an interactive art installation of huge origami mushrooms, by FoldHaus.

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Rene Smith

Those qualities make Burning Man art “less attractive in the conventional world of galleries,” Mr. Harvey said. “But at the same time the great potency of this is that it’s a social movement.” That said, some of the works are acquired after the event by cities or businesses. And Burning Man is eager to help its artists make a living beyond the desert.

The exhibition includes sculptures, art cars, light installations (including one by Leo Villareal that is part of the Renwick’s permanent collection), virtual reality experiences, jewelry and costume displays, an immersive temple (one of the show’s three commissioned works), and a documented history of the event organized by the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. The Renwick also teamed up with the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District to extend the exhibition into the neighborhood, where six installations — among them, a giant bear made of pennies and a bronze head of Maya Angelou — will inhabit parks and sidewalks.

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FoldHaus crew installing “Shrumen Lumen” at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

Burning Man has bohemian roots and can be seen as a descendant of Dada, Allan Kaprow’s Happenings and the psychedelic Merry Pranksters. Yet the Renwick is the arm of the Smithsonian dedicated to American craft, and “No Spectators” celebrates Burning Man as a hub of modern maker culture. The Arts and Crafts movement was born in response to the Industrial Revolution, and Ms. Atkinson suggests that Burning Man art responds to the digital and information revolutions.

“Each time we take another one of these technological leaps, there needs to be a balancing humanist force that keeps us connected,” she said. The link between Silicon Valley and Burning Man in both proximity and attendance is no accident, she pointed out.

But what happens when art shaped by utopian principles and intended as a civic gift to a temporary city is uprooted from its native white sands and replanted within white walls across the street from the White House, suddenly subject to the scrutiny of critics, curators and busy tourists?

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Installing Mischell Riley’s “Maya’s Mind” — a tribute to Maya Angelou — in Washington, D.C.

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Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

“This is the heart of the experiment now,” Ms. Cook said. “When you move into another context, how much cultural integrity can you maintain and insist upon?” The experiment she refers to is the expansion of Burning Man. In recent years, the organization — which has dozens of full-time, year-round employees — has been planning its long-term legacy. In 2011, it shifted from a limited liability company to a nonprofit, consolidating previously independent entities, like the Black Rock Arts Foundation, under one roof.

Since the Bureau of Land Management has capped attendance at the Burning Man event at about 70,000 people, the organization is exploring new ways to spread the gospel. Museums and municipalities are potential apostles. The goal is “a global movement which is not purely event-based anymore,” Ms. Cook said. “It’s as much about engaged citizenship and quality of interaction as it is about having a function.”

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Ms. Riley’s “Maya’s Mind,” in the desert.

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Darrell E. Ansted

Burning Man and the Smithsonian have worked closely together to ensure that values are upheld while institutional needs are met. Admission to the Smithsonian, as always, is free. A licensing agreement lets Burning Man review signage and press materials and set guidelines for merchandising and sponsorship. Nothing with the Burning Man name or logo will be sold in the gift shop; no corporate sponsors are acknowledged near the artwork, though the Renwick’s exhibition is supported by Intel and the Golden Triangle’s by Lyft.

The Smithsonian is also enlisting local Burners, as the festivalgoers are known, as gallery volunteers to help interpret and enhance the experience. And a docent manual that Burning Man helped develop offers suggestions for promoting deeper encounters in the Burning Man spirit: “Think about facilitating interactions rather than simply sharing information.”

Here’s a look at several featured artists and collectives adapting their Burning Man art to the white-walled museum world. Ms. Bertotti noted that the work “takes on a different preciousness here.” But then, adaptability is a Burning Man virtue.

David Best

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The sculptor David Best installing a temple at the Renwick.

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Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

The first temple that the sculptor David Best contributed to Burning Man, in 2000, was not meant to be a memorial but turned into one when a young artist he worked with was killed in a motorcycle accident weeks before the event. The following year, he was asked to build a temple for Burning Man, which became a place to mourn losses and mark transitions. Burning Man has built a temple every year since, one of its annual traditions. It is ceremoniously burned to conclude the event. “The fire can heal and seal and protect something,” Mr. Best said.

His temples were an impetus for the Renwick’s exhibition. “I don’t know if I would have done this show if I couldn’t have David in it,” Ms. Atkinson said. For “No Spectators,” Mr. Best and his crew are transforming the second-floor Grand Salon into a sanctuary encased in ornately carved raw wood panels with a central chandelier that descends to meet an altar. “I use beauty as a trap to catch the most pained person,” he said. “It has to be delicate and strong at the same time.”

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David Best and the Temple Crew, “The Temple,” at Burning Man 2016.

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Scott London

Mr. Best, 72, has made eight temples for Burning Man and several more beyond the desert, notably in 2015 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. “When I turned 60, I said I’m only going to work with people. I stopped showing in galleries,” he said. “When I stopped that game, that system of objects for sale, it freed me. I promised myself when I turned 70 I was only going to do priceless work.”

Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti

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