The First Weekend At The Burning Man In Washington Exhibit
The Burning Man event happens every summer in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. A complete city is built out of nothing. And at the end, the desert is returned to its natural state. Nothing is left behind. Burning Man is an artistic and cultural event where everyone is encouraged to fully immerse themselves. This founding principle is the name for this exhibit that lets you experience Burning Man in Washington DC at the Renwick Gallery – “No Spectators”. The Renwick Gallery Smithsonian American Art Museum is a branch of the Smithsonian. The exhibit provides a great look into the art of Burning Man in 14 exhibits commissioned from Burning Man artists.
We were in Washington DC for a long, long weekend over Easter. There was a long list of things to see and do. But top of our list was to visit the Burning Man in Washington exhibit on the opening morning. We were so glad that our fellow travel blogger Nicki strongly recommended this show. It was a good idea to arrive early before the crowds really descended. And we were so happy we visited!
Let us share just a little of the artistry of Burning Man that we saw. We can in no way capture the spirit that must exist when this city rises in the desert. We understood a little more about the concept of “No Spectators” when we left.
Arriving At The Renwick Gallery
We arrived at the Renwick Gallery just after the doors opened for the first time to the public. There was a small line up when we arrived. But by the time we exited, every room of the exhibit was crowded. There was a walking tour forming up outside the Renwick to see the outdoor sculptures that are part of of the exhibit. We took the walking tour map and did it on our own after we explored inside. There was no admission charge for the exhibit.
We stopped as we entered the museum to admire the massive chandelier. The LED chandelier on the Grand Stair is called “Volume”. It was installed when the museum underwent renovations in 2015. This set the tone for discovery as we started to wander the rooms of the exhibit.
The Burning Man
In the centre of the Burning Man site there is a 40 foot high statue of Man. At the end of the week, the Man burns in a huge fire display. When the co-founder of Burning Man (Crimson Rose) was asked why the Man is burned, he responded “So we can build him again.” It is a symbol of letting go.
When you experience Burning Man in Washington, you will find one room with a large wooden Man. Around the exhibits are various posters explaining the process and meaning. Videos also played that showed the burning ritual.
Messages In The Temple
Tied closely to the ritual of the burning man is the visit to the Temple. The Temple at the Burning Man site is a place for reflection and healing. People leave moving and very personal messages around the walls of the Temple. At the end of the week, the Temple too is burned.
At the Renwick Washington exhibit, they have re-created the inside of the Temple in the Grand Salon. Every wall is a different section of intricate light wooden displays. Hanging in the centre of the hall was a massive hanging sculpture.
As we entered the room we found white cards and were invited to put our own personal message on the walls. As we wandered around, we could see the first set of messages that had been left on this opening day.
When you experience Burning Man in Washington, don’t forget to leave something behind!
The Principles of Burning Man
There are 10 principles that guide the Burning Man experience. You can see them on the signpost display. They are listed in full at this link.
When you experience Burning Man in Washington, the one principle that we saw overwhelmingly displayed was that of radical self-expression. We saw it in the art, costumes, jewellery and creativity. The other key principle brought out by the exhibit title of “No Spectators” is that of participation and inclusivity. Burning Man is all about community for all.
3D Art Engaged You
Several rooms had large exhibits that drew you with 3D art, light and shadows. We saw many people mesmerized. People moved from spot to spot to see the art from a different angle. Or to place themselves in the art. They became a living part of the art displays.
One room had three large structures with cut out patterns. Lights shone from inside and out so that patterns formed around the room. One was suspended so that the patterns moved as it spun.
The Shrumen Lumen mushroom room was one of my favourites. This display created by the FoldHaus Art Collective included 3 mushroom shaped pieces that moved and blossomed with technicolour changing lights. If we stood on the designated spot, the sculpture began its dance. As the sculptures moved, we heard this most interesting cracking sound.
One room provided a chance to lie down and relax. Cushions were arranged in the middle of the room under a ceiling display. The video cycled through a kaleidoscope of images that entranced the people as they watched.
On the main floor we found a large arch that looked like it was made from paper mâché. When we looked close, we saw cutout sections with dioramas. The columns included peepholes. When we looked through, we got an interesting view to the eye on the peephole on the other side.
It was hard not to experience Burning Man in Washington and not be drawn into interacting with the 3D art exhibits.
Creativity In Costume Design
One full exhibit room highlighted the creativity that people applied to the costumes of Burning Man. The previous night as we wandered around Washington DC, we saw several different people dressed in the most abstract costumes. When we arrived at the Renwick exhibit, we finally understood that these people had attended the opening gala for the exhibit the night before.
We stopped to admire the intricate work on the Nagana Brass Gown (by Jungle Tribe) and the Cocoon Gown (by Gelareh Alam and Sophis Constance). The Peaceful Warrior headdress was another intricate piece of costume art.
There were displays that showed other examples of the individuality shown in the costumes that people wore to the Burning Man.
We found the costumes to be quite fascinating. It is an exhibit not to be missed when you experience Burning Man in Washington. However, I must admit that I could not imagine wearing this much clothing in the middle of the desert in the summer!
Larger Than Life
The large wire framed woman suspended in one gallery kept us entranced. This display by Marco Cochrane was called Truth is Beauty. Lights changed colour as they lit this sculpture from different angles. Shadows moved over the walls and ceilings.
If the artistically posed woman was light and delicate, the Tin Pan Dragon was the opposite. Built of metal it was a bit of a menacing display. It seemed to be keeping watch on the crowd.
If you wanted to feel like you were experiencing Burning Man, there was even a virtual reality setup. It was a big hit with the children. This would certainly entice the next generation of Burning Man attendees.
Be prepared for larger than life displays when you experience Burning Man in Washington. Take them in from different angles. Watch the light change your perspective.
Beyond The Renwick
We didn’t just limit ourselves to the exhibits in the main gallery. There was a walking tour and we toured multiple other artistic pieces in the neighbourhood. We didn’t see them all but there was a variety of sculptures I didn’t want to miss.
Our first stop was at Maya’s Mind. The face represented Maya Angelou, an African American poet, singer and activist. The detailed 20 foot face carving sat on 3 books high above the sidewalk. It seemed to look down at the spectators below. The artist Mischell Riley chose this sculpture as a way to promote women in history.
Our next stop was Jack Champion’s untitled sculpture of a pair of crows. The crows looked like they were squawking at the crowd that gathered when the artist arrived to talk about this piece of work. Jack Champion explained that his name for the piece was “Attempted Murder”. Only “attempted” because three or more crows are required for it to be a murder of crows.
As we moved about, we could see the crow sculptures seemed to interact with the Washington cherry blossoms just starting to sprout. This was just one of the interesting spots we found cherry blossoms that highlighted the neighbourhoods of Washington DC.
Our final stop was at the XOXO display by Laura Kimpton with Jeff Schromberg. When I saw it on the map, I thought about hugs and kisses. We almost missed this silver metal display as it blended into the building behind it.
The weather for our long weekend in Washington was highly variable. Dark clouds threatened rain again, so we quit after seeing the first 3 of 6 outdoor exhibits. If you experience Burning Man in Washington, plan the time to follow the outdoor walking path. There are guided tours once a day.
Don’t Miss The Chance To Experience Burning Man in Washington DC
We had lots of things planned on our long weekend in Washington. But we were so glad we had the chance to experience Burning Man in Washington. It was opening weekend and we were sure that this will be a great success. We are thankful to the artists that contributed to the Burning Man No Spectators exhibit and happy that the Renwick Gallery encouraged pictures.
The artistic creativity on display was inspiring. It gave us a quick glimpse into what it might be like to head into the desert for Burning Man. But I must admit I am still not convinced that I will go to the real event. So I was very glad to gett a chance to experience it from afar.
Did you experience Burning Man in Washington DC? Did this entice you to experience Burning Man in the desert?
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It is interesting to know that burning man is burnt every year so that it can be rebuilt next year. We have traditional festivals in India where we create the gods and goddesses from clay, worship and celebrate them for 10 days and then offer them back to the rivers. This repeats year after year.
Anuradha, It was interesting to learn a little about the traditions of Burning Man at the exhibit. It is interesting that Indian celebrations work in a similar way year after year. Thanks for sharing that. Linda
I love this exhibit! Pop culture shouldn’t be sneezed at. It becomes history given enough time. Great review and a good reason to get to DC.
Jody, I am glad you enjoyed our review of the Burning Man exhibit. We were so happy we managed to see it when we visited Washington. It was a good peek into some of the traditions. Linda
The temple of the burning man looks so ornate! The costumes look amazing as well. The Tin Pan Dragon does look menacing! What an interesting exhibit! Loved the post.
Shruti, I am glad you enjoyed the post. It was great to see this display on our visit to Washington. I was not aware how much ornate art was part of the Burning Man event in the desert! Linda
I am from Nevada and Burning Man has always fascinated me. This is a great way to experience a little of the mystery and art of the epic event. The space fly outfit is so cool, I want to make one just like it. It might be uncomfortable in the desert though, I agree.
Chris, We did find it a great way to get a small taste of what the desert event must be like. I too was very amazed at the intricacies of the costumes. Linda
This sounds so similar to our Holika Dahan – burning Holika – festival. The display of art there is amazing, so much creativity in them. How old is this festival? How many years has this been celebrated?
Indrani, I have got other feedback that this resembles other Indian festivals. This was really only started in 1986 – so young for Indian history. But it has grown to be a massive event each year in the desert. Linda
The first time I heard about the Burning Man was when one of my friend mentioned that she was going to join the event. But I’ve never really understand what was it all about until I read your detailed article. It’s really fascinating to learn the facts and story behind it, specially about the radical self-expression and I also love the idea behind the Temple. Thanks for sharing all the informations. I wish I could experience the event too soon 😀
DebbZie, I am glad this gave you a better idea of what the Burning Man event would be like. It was a great way for us to really see some of the amazing art and creativity. Linda
What a fascinating review and such a great museum to check out. Great recommendation. I’ve always been fascinated by burning man, but Nevada is not on my radar. Visiting the museum is a great alternative. I’ll be in D.C. later this year and definitively saving this recommendation. Great article. Thanks for sharing.
Rosemary, I am glad you got good information from our review of the Washington exhibit. It is absolutely worth visiting if you are in Washington. It was such an interesting peek into this fascinating event. Linda
The Temple at Burning Man sounds so cool. What an amazing exhibit. It would almost be as much to see the Washington exhibit as the original. I’ve wanted to go Burning Man ever since I read Around the World in 80 Dates and the writer met her man there. It sounds so fun.
Carol, I think it would be cool to go back after the exhibit has been up for awhile and see the messages that people are leaving. It was the first morning and just a few were there. If you plan a trip to Washington, I would definitely recommend visiting the Burning Man exhibit. Linda
Sounds quite interesting a concept – to let go and build again! It must be quite an intriguing sight to watch the tall wooden man burn away but what I can’t believe is that the temple also burns at the end of the week, along with the burning man?
Medha, The Burning Man exhibit in Washington was a great insight into this desert event. I too did not know that they burned so much at the end. I knew that nothing was left behind but had not really thought about how they got rid of it all. Linda
To be completely honest, I knew nothing about Burning Man although I’d heard it mentioned multiple times. How cool that you got to learn about it in such an interesting setting! The virtual reality setup looked especially fun!
Vicky and Buddy, I knew very little before going to the exhibit. It was fascinating to see how intricate it is for something that is built and then torn down. We couldn’t get past the kids to get to the virtual reality 🙂 Linda