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THE BURNING MAN FESTIVAL
Hot spots at the burn
- Meredith May Chronicle staff writer, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006
(09-03) 04:00 PST Black Rock Desert, Nev. -- Nearly 40,000 people gathered in the middle of the Nevada desert to celebrate as a 40-foot wooden man erupted in a Technicolor blaze Saturday night, marking the end of the weeklong artistic festival known as Burning Man.
Revelers transformed a dry lakebed near Gerlach, Nev., into an artist's paradise, with towering sculptures, flame-throwing monster jeeps and a neighborhood of theme camps providing everything from steak 'n' eggs to pole-dancing lessons -- to help one another live for a week in a punishing desert devoid of water, shade or cell phone access.
"In every way, I can see that Burning Man has matured -- it's long past its adolescence," said Larry Harvey, who started Burning Man in 1986 with a handful of friends on Baker Beach in San Francisco. "Everything is bigger: the sculptures, the art cars, the spin-off movements to bring Burning Man into daily civic life."
Many years later, his pilgrims are still gathering, and this year Burning Man's sculptures and participatory camps were some of the event's most ambitious. Here are some of The Chronicle's picks for the best of Burning Man 2006:
-- Best art installation: 'The Belgian Waffle'
Ninety artists from Belgium shipped 100 miles of wooden beams to the playa, and nail-gunned them into a free-form cavern 15 stories high. It looked like a giant's haystack twisted into a computer model of a wave, with curved entrances on four sides. Reminiscent of Frank Gehry's undulating architectural style, its sides appeared to drip, defying gravity.
Dwarfing all other sculptures, the "Waffle" was the biggest draw at night, as revelers packed into the cavern and danced to electronica bathed in neon-green light.
"We didn't use a model, we just started at the bottom and kept adding as we went up," said Jan Kriekels, who said he funded the entire $250,000 project, including buying $250 tickets for the volunteers who spent three weeks building it. They used construction cranes to add the lumber to the top. The 2-inch-by-3-inch beams ranged in size from 8 to 10 feet long and came from the reject pile at a Canadian lumber mill.
Although the artists might be offended by the sculpture's nickname, the installation's true name is "Uchronia" -- named after a Belgian art movement centered on a world without the concept of time, Kriekels said.
"This piece is a symbol for a system that creates its own creators. We all did this together without being told how to do it -- we are factory workers, bookmakers, editors, designers, artists, salespeople -- and we can only do this if we refuse to be defined," he said.
The artists plan to burn "Uchronia" tonight. Kriekels said his crew will plant enough trees in Belgium to offset his installation's greenhouse emissions.
-- Best camp: Camp Katrina
Katrina victims who were at Burning Man when the hurricane hit last summer and the burners who helped them recover built a museum-style display of their relief mission to the Gulf Coast.
Through pictures, words, video and artifacts -- water-logged bedposts, chipped picture frames and other items collected in Katrina's wake -- burners learned the story of how artists responded to the devastation.
Using $40,000 and 7 tons of food collected at Burning Man 2005, a crew from Burners Without Borders and Burning Man Temple Builders flew to Biloxi, Miss., and rebuilt a Vietnamese Buddhist temple with donated construction equipment. In Pearlington, Miss., they rebuilt a home for a 71-year-old man who was left with nothing but the Harley-Davidson motorcycle he'd used to escape the rising waters.
By the end of their six-month stint, burners had provided $1 million worth of free demolition to homeowners, knocked down 60 homes, recycled tons of lumber into new homes, and fetched an untold number of runaway boats and sheds.
"It was a life-altering experience," said Scott Stephenson of Jackson Hole, Wyo. "We shared gumbo with shrimpers whose homes we put back on their foundations."
The work inspired Camp Katrina to try something new this year at Burning Man. They asked burners to skip the tradition of burning the wood from their camps and structures at the end of the event, and instead bring it to their camp so they could recycle it into low-income housing in Reno.
-- Best food: Pancake Playhouse
Maybe pancakes aren't the most extravagant menu item on the playa, compared with offerings such as sushi, barbecued pork ribs or Nutella crepes, but the line outside the Pancake Playhouse each morning was proof enough that sometimes simple and quick is best after a night of dancing till the breaka dawn.
Each morning, eight griddles started smoking at 9, and the flapjack line quickly stretched 50 deep with hungry, dusty revelers in hot pants, body paint and the ubiquitous man's utility skirt -- favored by Black Rock Rangers and other emergency crews -- known as the utili-kilt.
"Yesterday they started a riot," said Cabral Bonner, a.k.a. Bisquick. "They formed a line before we woke up, and were yelling, 'Whadda we want? Pancakes! When do we want 'em? Now!' "
Add a little soft rock, and it's a recipe for greatness. The pancake crew served approximately 13,800 hotcakes in a week.
-- Best art car: The Moonshine Saloon
Motorized travel at Burning Man is done in cars transformed into spaceships, dragons, tiki bars and anything else the mind can imagine. And in a land where the majority of burners seem to have imagined a moving double-decker techno dance club illuminated by pink neon lights, the Moonshine Saloon stands alone.
An 1800s Western saloon replete with lasso-swinging cowboys, corseted ladies of the evening and a debonair bartender pouring moonshine, the saloon toured the desert at night blaring old-timey piano music that charmed even the most seasoned Burning Man veteran.
"We wanted something that would change the atmosphere of Burning Man a little bit," said Jeff White of Fresno, a set designer who built the saloon on top of an electric golf cart with the help of seven friends. "This seems to transport people to another place," he said.
-- Best fire: Serpent Mother
What's cooler than a 90-foot coiled snake shooting fire the length of her body?
Answer: That same snake with fireworks screaming from her nostrils as she tilts her head back and gnashes her jaws, while fireworks rocket from the earth around her, creating a Kandinsky-esque light painting in the sky.
The Bay Area women from the Flaming Lotus Girls art collective blew through nearly 8,000 gallons of propane to feed their Serpent Mother for a week.
"It was magnificent," said Jerry Beck of Laguna Beach, "But what really blew me away was how much money they must have spent to do this -- just to entertain people at Burning Man."
E-mail Meredith May at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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