Memorial Day honors those who died serving our country, but we may also visit a grandmother’s grave. Throughout the year, there are opportunities to keep her memory alive. One of the most distinctive is Burning Man, a festival for building and experiencing art in the desert, with or without clothing.
Each September, Burners transform a flat empty playa near Gerlach into Black Rock City, Nevada’s third largest urban environment. After a week it disappears with the mantra, “Leave No Trace.” Nothing on the playa reveals Black Rock City’s existence until the next year. Climaxing the festival, a giant wooden Man burns the Saturday night before Labor Day in a bacchanalian rite of dance, performance art, and flames.
I attended Burning Man for six years. I have also researched name arrangement on memorials, including the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in Thiepval, France, designed by Edwin Lutyens. When I first saw a photo of the WWI Memorial, it reminded me of Burning Man. Thiepval was an influence on Maya Lin for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial. David Best may also have studied Lutyens before building the Temple of Tears, Temple of Joy and Temple of Honor.
The Thiepval Memorial is a truncated tower with sixteen piers supporting intersected arches that increase in size for a two-story effect. In the interior, these piers hold names of 72,000 primarily British missing soldiers. Best’s Temples also featured arches, towers, multiple stories, and interior names. Constructed of scraps from manufacturing 3D dinosaur puzzles, similar to cookie dough scraps, they were feathery shrines of light and memory.
Best’s first Temple at the 2000 Burning Man, Temple of the Mind, designed with Jack Haye, was a ramshackle building not reflecting Thiepval. But in 2001, Best and Haye got serious. Their Temple of Tears (or Temple of Memory) featured a truncated tower and two arches, one on top of the other, giving the appearance of two stories. Burners wrote memorial inscriptions inside. Sunday night it made a glorious blaze of memories and dinosaur templates.
In 2002, Best, with Haye, continued building upon his own work in addition to Lutyens. The Temple of Joy had the truncated tower, the multiple story effect, and interior names, but no arches. His Temple of Honor in 2003 brought the arches back, retaining the two-story idea, with an elongated tower. Temple of Stars, Best’s final Temple in 2004, reflected only his own work, with a single story, tall tower and no arches. As always, Burners inscribed their memories into the interior. Mark Grieve designed the Temples of Dreams in 2005 and the Temple of Hope in 2006 without reference to Lutyens.
The Thiepval Memorial organizes names of the missing by regiments, rank and alphabetical order. Because British fighting units mustered into the Pals Battalions of their towns and neighborhoods, the Memorial keeps friends and relatives together. At Burning Man, the names are random, an ill advised organizational structure for memorials. Michael Arad, designer of the proposed World Trade Center Memorial, tried random. When surviving families vilified the suggestion as insulting, he reluctantly changed his easy-way-out random to a display that honors victims as friends and co-workers.
But random at Burning Man is only an appearance. Burners each carefully select a place on the Temple for their memories. They choose that place for a reason. Perhaps it reminds them of their loved ones; perhaps it’s easy to get to or a challenge to reach. Each memory remains in its sacred space until the burn on Sunday night.
Some say the Temple is a superior burn to the Man. After all, the Man always looks the same, but the Temple changes each year. The burning of the Man is an invitation to party. The Temple burn glows with memories and the reverence is real, regardless of what Burners wear or do not wear.
This year the Man is green, an obvious 2007 theme for a festival that leaves no trace. Check it out. You don’t need clothes, although costumes are a big part of the experience. Bring a tent, a shade structure, and lots of sunscreen and water. Bring those who now live only in your heart. When the Temple burns, it will carry your love into the sky.