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Theme Art

A special category of Burning Man art relates to the event's official theme. The Project articulates a theme each year as 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.

Our annual preview of the theme art for The Floating World-the theme for the 2002 event-took place at the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason on July 30. Louis Brill, LadyBee, Crimson Rose, and Steven Raspa organized the evening event. Several theme artists presented their projects, and LadyBee gave a slide presentation on the history of art on the playa. Steven Raspa was the Master of Ceremonies for the evening.

This year the playa enclosed by our city was conceived as a large bay, with the Esplanade functioning as its dock and the theme camps lining it serving as ports of call. Within this bay could be found QueeQueg's Coffin, a memorial to Herman Melville's Moby Dick; Fish Tales, several large metal grunion surrounding a stage for where participants could tell fish stories; Sisyphish, a zoetrope in which a strobe light brought to life the figure of a swimmer; and Swamp Gas, a fiery swamp surrounded by crocodiles. Two large aquatic gardens flanked the Esplanade. The Lily Pond planted a watery garden of solar-powered lily pads casting blue lights onto the playa surface and populated by fiber-optic dragonflies, glass koi fish, and light-reactive water lilies-a perfect marriage of art and technology. Lotus Land featured 12-foot tall metal lotus plants anchored by rope-light roots and periodically spewing fire into the night sky. Easter Island heads concealed certain functional comfort stations on the open playa, and participants could worship at the Temple of WaterBoy.

The Keyhole area in center camp was graced by Egeria, a lovely fountain of flaming water inspired by models from antiquity. The Ark of the Nereids, a boat in the form a turquoise narwhale, sailed the waters of our bay, as did La Contessa, a mysterious ghost ship resembling an 18th-century Spanish galleon whose tattered sails bespoke treacherous adventures. A life-sized sperm whale, fashioned in the image of Moby Dick and equipped with a mechanically operated tail, sometimes stalked these vessels on the open sea.

David Best's Temple of Joy marked the Island of Azeura, the last known land mass in our bay, and the open playa beyond it constituted the Unknown World. This far-reaching ocean was dotted with islands, or art installations, all the way to its furthest edges at the trash fence. In 2002, mapping placed more installations deeper out on the playa than in prior years, drawing participants out to the edges of Black Rock City. There they encountered an enormous yellow Rubber Ducky that housed a jazz club and casino, a huge white fire-spouting octopus half-submerged in the playa, luminous pearls and oyster shells, and two classical Sirens crooning seductive songs. By night participants could glimpse an electroluminescent sperm whale as it leapt out of the playa surface, turned, and dove back in with a splash, a leviathan made of light. Grotto Light, a Buddhist-inspired lighthouse, marked the farthest point of travel from the center of our city.

A complete list of installations can be found in the Theme Art Listings.

Each year, our grant program provides monetary assistance to artists who produce projects related to our annual theme. In 2002, 32 grants were awarded. Burning Man continues to be the largest funding organization for individual artists in the Bay Area.

Another aspect of this year's theme art program was the Treasure Hunt, organized with the help of our theme camps. Participants collected beads from many designated theme camps, and five beads of the proper types could then be exchanged for a golden doubloon. The doubloon could be kept, given away, or used to gain entrance to the Lighthouse on which the Man stood. Doubloons were also hidden in several of the theme art installations in the Unknown World. During the first three days of this adventure, we experienced what can only be described as "technical" difficulties. The floating island of the Kaos Kabaret had been commissioned as a mobile distribution point where beads could be exchanged for treasure coins. However, in the final few weeks before the event, this desert island, along with all of its inhabitants, abruptly sank beneath the ocean waves. In its stead, we improvised a second scheme in which we hurriedly arranged for three large pieces of mobile theme art to perform this service-a brigantine, a galleon, and a whale. Each of these was scheduled to appear on one of three successive days, but two did not arrive on time, and some participants did not receive their coins because of this miscue. In the end, however, we did mange to distribute 7,000 doubloons at the event, and all of them were found.

Our Treasure Hunt served a very practical purpose. It was intended to function as a kind of benign filter. The interior system of ladders within the Lighthouse could not have accommodated every participant who wanted access to its upper chamber, so the requirement for possession of a doubloon helped to control this traffic. Next year, however, we plan to build a new platform for the Man that will employ an exterior stairway. Everyone will now be able to ascend directly to the Burning Man.

Submitted by,
LadyBee and Larry Harvey

Click here to read the 2001 Theme Art report.