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Theme Art

A special category of Burning Man art works with the event's official theme-in 2001, The Seven Ages. The Project articulates a theme each year in order to provide a story that connects the work of artists to the actions of participants. The theme is a means of promoting widespread civic interaction,. of merging the concerns of the city's life and art into a shared experience. In 2001, The Seven Ages theme inspired more interaction than ever before.

The theme art area on the playa was designed as a gigantic board game. It began at the Keyhole in center camp with Jenne Giles's Mandala, an inventive and whimsical series of graduated, spinning mandala wheels bedecked with bells, flowers, and festive decorations. Seated upon a grand throne, a participant could view the Man through the mandalas. Three guardian angel figures, their heads formed from spotlights, illuminated this installation, and a flowing red rope light connected all of its components.

The game of Life commenced at the Cradle installation, which simulated the birth experience for participants. After passing through the gigantic vulvas in Deirdre de Franceaux and Jan Nunn's installation, participants were meant to bounce their way through dozens of large exercise balls. Sadly, the balls almost immediately disappeared. Over-enthusiastic participants bombarded others with the balls, breaking the protective netting which enclosed the space. Soon, almost all of them were gone.

The Art Team plans to work harder in the coming year to educate participants about care and respect for artworks, each of which represents many months of someone's hard effort, and all of which deserve profound respect. Beyond the Cradle, the Playground contained many interactive playthings built to withstand abuse; nothing in this area was damaged.

At the next stage of the game, the Chapel was a reincarnation of Finley Fryer's Plastic Chapel from 1998, providing a theatrical setting for nearly continuous weddings and commitment ceremonies. Further on along this path, Peri Pfeninger's Coliseum hosted many participant-created games of skill and other performances, including Laser Tag, Homoerotic Mexican Grab-Ass Wrestling, a bike rodeo, "contact fire," and a production of Macbeth. The Maze, the next stage, proved to be a vibrant social center. Thousands of people visited this space throughout the day and evening. The top of the Maze provided an especially popular vista. Its superb view of the playa even served as a dramatic setting for a legal wedding.

Perhaps more than any other installation, David Best and Jack Haye's Mausoleum (also known as the Temple of Tears) combined the aims of art and life. During the event, its several altars were heaped with contributions, mementos, and tributes to the dead, and participants covered its walls with inscriptions.

Upon entering, one immediately noticed the silence and focused attention of the crowd constantly gathered here. This grand and eloquent monument to the departed moved many people to tears. Was this installation art or was it life? For the thousands who witnessed the immolation of the Mausoleum on Sunday night, it was both.

A description of all 45 theme art installations can be found in the 2001 Theme Art archives.

Prior to the 2000 event, Louis Brill, YLEM's special events coordinator, organized the "Burning Man Pre-Compression," a preview of that year's theme art at the San Francisco Exploratorium, held in conjunction with YLEM:Artists Using Science and Technology.

The show returned in June 2001 for The Seven Ages theme. LadyBee, art curator, gave a lecture on 10 years of art at Burning Man, and Louis and artist Steven Raspa introduced eleven theme artists who gave presentations on their 2001 projects. The McBean Theater could not accommodate all who wanted to attend, so the overflow audience seated outside watched the speakers' presentations on live video.

Some artists who annually produce ambitious theme art receive assistance through monetary grants awarded by the Burning Man Project. In 2001, 32 grants supported theme art installations that met the criteria found in the grants guidelines on the Burning Man web site.

The Art Team works closely with grant recipients to facilitate their art-making processes from beginning to end. This assistance includes help finding volunteers, connections to other artists, and support in overcoming logistical problems. On the playa, staff also help artists manage the many challenges that are inevitable in Black Rock City's chaotic environment.

A new feature of the 2001 theme was Seven Ages passports. Participants had their passports stamped at selected theme art installations upon completion of tasks or interactive experiences. The feature was intended to encourage participants to engage as fully as possible with the theme art. Stamps from six major stations allowed participants to enter the Temple of Enlightenment, the platform on which the Man itself stood, and view the playa from a window high above the surface.

The scheme also incorporated individual theme camps, allowing certain camps to serve as stamping stations. Unfortunately, many stamps were unavailable at featured installations. Then again, theme camps reported many more visitors, more interaction, and more fun gained through the stamping process. A similar scheme may return for 2002, but with stamps available via many more theme camps.

The passport system engendered some complaints, but also some praise. The following letter came from a participant:

As I wandered across the playa to collect stamps, I realized that my days at Black Rock City were a metaphor for the theme: Each day I spent at Black Rock City was one of the Ages of Man. We arrive as infants and exit via the Mausoleum. It totally fit my experience. Was this intentional? Have I entered an even greater Temple of Wisdom? Another positive aspect in filling my passport was meeting fellow burners also on the same search. Instead of competing, there was wonderful cooperation as learned information was passed on to person to person. What a blast. I don't know if I would have sought out the Theme Art on the playa without the passports and stamps, but if I did, it would have not been as much fun. Please, please continue this idea next year. - Jay