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Oakland Museum’s Burning Man exhibit encourages interaction with art

on October 15, 2019

Amongst decaying artifacts like costumes, headdresses and floats, spectators congregated at the Oakland Museum of California to view the new “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” exhibit. The gallery, which opened to the public this weekend, features a variety of works dedicated to the festival, which has been operating for the last 50 years.

While the annual Burning Man event is held at the end of August in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, its roots originated in the Bay Area. Now its art has a dedicated space in Oakland until February 16, 2020.

But, usually, the art is temporary. Burning Man is meant to celebrate community, art, and expression, culminating in the burning of a large wooden effigy known as “The Man.” Through the principles set forth by the Burning Man Project, a non-profit organization that facilitates the event each year, people who participate in the event or in Burning Man culture involve themselves in six program areas that include the arts, civic involvement, culture, and education. The festivals also typically include a theme that changes each year. The theme for this past year was “Metamorphoses.”

Burning Man began in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco with founders Larry Harvey and Jerry James, among others. The group conducted a bonfire ritual, burning an 8-foot-tall wooden figure to commemorate the summer solstice. Harvey has described the burning of these figures as an act of both self-expression and defying societal expectation. In the years that would follow, the man would grow in size. By 1988, the event was formally referred to as “Burning Man.”

In 2018, more than 70,000 people attended the festival. The price, without purchasing a vehicle pass, is about $400. However, the festival organizers offer a few thousand tickets at $190 for those who can prove financial hardship, with the higher-priced tickets offsetting the cost of the program. Some volunteers are also gifted access for building the event and making it possible for others to attend.

“The name No Spectators means that everyone is a participant,” said Peggy Monahan, director of content development at the museum and an organizing curator for the exhibition. “All of this art invites you to participate in some way. It’s not just like art you can step back and look at its art that you experience in a deeper way that’s touchable, or interactive, or experiential.”

“Horse Headdress” by Tiffa Novoa/ Marisa Youlden (2004) and “Loveless Tokyo Necklace” by Marisa Youlden (2006)

Immediately upon entry, visitors to the museum are presented with the 10 principles of the festival painted on the wall in bold type. The tenets of the event and of those who make the trek every year are: radical inclusion, gifting, de-commodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace on the festival grounds, participation, and immediacy—which refers to the importance of staying present and prioritizing experiences.

The exhibit includes photographs, portraits, tattered remnants of past Burning Man attire, elegant headdresses, and bizarre installations such as a collection of keys lost at the festival over the last decade. The gallery features a number of interactive creations, allowing Oakland residents an opportunity to place themselves at Burning Man.

A highlight of the exhibit is the two large colorful mechanical mushrooms that can be controlled by attendees. Each mushroom has a circular pad in front that lights up, until the light reaches the outer rim of the pad. Once the entire outside of the pad is green, this means that it has reached max power. Whenever someone steps on the pad, it acts as a start button, causing the mushrooms to change form. The mushrooms either grow or shrink or rapidly change color—though if given enough time, they change color without human interaction.

Next to the mushrooms appears a large installation that at first glance looks like a shrine combined with an archway. Viewers can walk around, as well as through, the ceiling-height piece. But there is more to it than its outside appearance. Each side is composed of panels, and each panel shows an image, such as someone dressed in Burning Man attire, or an abstract recreation of “The Man.” Upon further inspection, some panels contain an eye-shaped opening which attendees can look through, revealing smaller artworks. Those daring enough to peek inside the ominous structure might see a small recreation of men carrying out the Burning Man procession, or visuals showing the remains left after every year’s gathering.

Moving to the outside of the museum, visitors are led down a mysterious pathway. At the end, they are confronted with a large temple made of wood. Getting closer reveals intricate carvings and designs, the wood contrasting with the dark grays that make up the building and the pop of color from the surrounding foliage. On either side of the temple are wooden plates with markers. People can write messages and leave the plates in a designated area. “Art is awesome,” reads one plate.

“Temple of Reunion” by David Best; installation for No Spectators: Art of Burning Man

The gallery also includes another interactive piece titled the “Giftomatic,” which allows visitors to operate a large version of the coin-operated machines that dispense small toys for kids. Instead of toys, however, the plastic containers inside the machine contain woven bracelets and other handmade jewelry. This jewelry can also be made by attendees. There is no fee to either make gifts or receive gifts through the Giftomatic—this particular device exists to provide the community with an opportunity to experience the Burning Man principle of gifting.

Steven Jones, an attendee and documenter of the Burning Man event, looked closely at old photos and marketing posters for the festival as he examined an area of the gallery. Having previously captured stories from the festival in his book, Tribes of Burning Man, Jones said it felt strange to see Burning Man associated with a semi-permanent space. “It’s interesting! It definitely captures a lot of the feel of it, but it’s really weird to have it in a museum setting,” he said. “There’s something incongruous about having Burning Man in an established art gallery because it’s always existed as a statement against that.”

Still, he said, he was excited to see what the rest of the exhibit space had to offer. “Burning Man has become a reflection of Bay Area counterculture in our communities and a vehicle for it to continue and endure,” said Jones.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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