No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man at Cincinnati Art Museum

June 1st, 2019  |  Published in *  |  1 Comment

Part One opened April 26; Part Two opens June 7 and continues through September 2.

Tuesday–Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m.–8 p.m.

“No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” took over the Cincinnati Art Museum starting April 26 and it will continue until September 2, 2019. According to Marian Goodell the ultimate goal of “Burning Man” is to encourage the culture of creativity. Think of spontaneous cultural experiences from the recent past, some ragged like Rainbow Gatherings, others more codified like Woodstock, yet others more localized like simple chalk drawing efforts during street fairs, these activities arise because we all need to come together to express ourselves. “Burning Man” was one such effort that started in San Francisco and it exploded with popularity over time to near-mythic proportions, thus changing in size and feel, sadly. This happens often and without intent.  Burning Man as a cool, expensive, hipster event is a victim of its own success.

Yet Burning Man is a brilliant intervention into the hallowed halls, if you will, of the Cincinnati Art Museum.  Contemporary art interventions in traditional museums are not completely new but they are always fresh and often unexpected. “Burning Man” adds a rad spin to this interventionist practice since the actual “Burning Man” is a cultural festival taking place in the desert city of Black Rock, Nevada.

The desert is essential so that the archetypal wood-effigy Man can be burned at the conclusion of the festival.  And everyone is meant to participate which explains “no spectators.” It’s been called “an experience in collective dreaming.” It’s become a cultural movement of sorts and it takes over as a thriving temporary city of more than 70,000 active participants from all over the world who gather in the dust of the Black Rock Desert outside Reno, Nevada, for seven days. It also has an environmental goal to leave no trace of refuse after the seven-day festival concludes. I am thinking there should be a twin festival called “Poseidon” whereby hipsters gather at sites by oceans and bays throughout the world and clean the beaches of the dreaded plastic and convenience detritus we seem to need every day.  I’m not joking, someone run with this idea, just credit me.

“Burning Man is one of the most influential movements in contemporary American art and culture,” said Cameron Kitchin, Cincinnati Art Museum’s Director. “The visual culture created in conjunction with the Burning Man gathering each year is a democratic and inclusive model of artistic expression. Working with the thinkers and artists who create the culture challenges the very notion of an art museum.” Kitchin was instrumental in bringing “Burning Man” to Cincinnati. David J Brown, guest curator for the exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum said, “The highly imaginative art that happens in the desert is fueled by the Burning Man Community, where everyone contributes their imagination and capabilities to support radical co-creation. The Ten Principles support the notion that everyone is a radical artist, be radically involved, and radically celebrate who you are. The art that is created reflects this beautiful idea.”

For the annual desert events of “Burning Man”, different groups create spectacular art works, funky contraptions and performance-based experiences. The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum is the mastermind behind “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man.” Nora Atkinson, the Curator of Craft at the Renwick Gallery, invited numerous artist or design collectives to create works that convey the spirit, look and feel of the kinds of works created for the annual desert festival. Since each year is different, it was an enormous task to invite and curate such things as giant mutant art vehicles, and immersive gallery-sized installations and she succeeded brilliantly.

“Burning Man” unfolds at the Cincinnati Art Museum in two phases. The first phase opened April 26, and the second, which will unveil additional art throughout the museum, opens on June 7. Both phases of the exhibition will close September 2, 2019. The reason for this is two-step process is that a number of important exhibitions were to be in place in April when Part One opened, such as the valuable Art Academy 150 year exhibition. So once it and other exhibits conclude, more of the “Burning Man” art extravaganza can be installed throughout the museum for viewing.

A very helpful part of the exhibition is the room with a lot of historic ephemera, posters, notes and photography to help show all of us who never went to an actual Burning Man what it was like to attend. There is an excellent video and wall texts. This is a companion exhibition called “City of Dust: The Evolution of Burning Man,” organized by the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. It carefully traces Burning Man’s origins from its countercultural roots to the world-famous desert convergence it is today.

I want to discuss four of the creations at the museum.  Upon entering, turn right and you will be delighted by the “Shrumen Lumen” by FoldHaus, a mesmerizing feat of technology and the human imagination. This is the first time I am withholding an image.  Go to the museum to experience “Shrumen Lumen.”

Returning to the entrance foyer, be delighted by “The Paper Arch” you must walk through to see the rest of the “Burning Man” installations. Like some of the works in “Burning Man” it has a Steampunk feel. Vintage photographs and printed images are collaged onto it and it has numerous viewing holes. Like some of the installations, there is room to interact with it. Peering into each viewing hole one is surprised by different dioramas within. “The Arch” is very craft-like which is not intended as criticism.  Rather, it speaks in contrast to the way that often what is presented as contemporary art is codified by anesthetized criteria of what is ‘contemporary.’ I am thinking of the Pop modality of Jeff Koons or KAWS. No Pop here, simply handwork and a nostalgic, craft sensibility in this extravagant, multi-ton archway.

Another experiential installation is “Capitol Theater,” a beautifully crafted hand-made 1920s/’30s art deco-style movie theater on wheels parked in one of the galleries. This collaboratively constructed driving movie palace is made by Five Ton Crane (5TC), a diverse group of more than eighty artists, builders, makers and inventors from the San Francisco Bay Area who worked to create something beyond what they could produce individually. Go up the steps to this small theater and watch a charming recreation of an old time black and white silent film. This too has a Steampunk vibe: retro, ad hoc, hand-made.

The work I have complete trouble with is “Truth is Beauty” by Marco Cochrane.

The wall text states it is “created to encourage female empowerment and self-acceptance. “Truth is Beauty” is a scaled-down version of one of three works displayed on the playa that make up his Bliss Project. Cochrane intends the project to bring attention to the issue of violence against women, demystifying the female body and portraying the “feminine energy and power that results when women feel free and safe.” This is complete hogwash.  Why is the woman young and nude? This is so typically patriarchal I am shocked it wasn’t questioned by the woman curator at the Renwick. The piece is in full view at the top of the stairs on the second floor.  The female nude is slim (of course) has perfect uplifted breasts (of course) and long Barbie-doll legs (of course.)  Did I mention she was also nude? There is nothing intelligent to write about this sculpture.  It is trite, predictable and devoid of transformative impact. It is the only sore point in an otherwise wonderful presentation of works.

For myself, I can’t wait to see what is in store for us in Part Two. It is important to note that “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” was produced in collaboration with the Burning Man Project, the nonprofit organization responsible for producing the annual Burning Man event in Black Rock City, Nevada. The Burning Man community has been instrumental in suggesting artworks for inclusion in the exhibition. Shame on them for promoting the cheesecake Cochran oversized nude. After its presentation in Cincinnati, the exhibition moves to the Oakland Museum of California from October 12, 2019–February 16, 2020.

The artists in this exhibition include Candy Chang, Marco Cochrane, Duane Flatmo, Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti, Five Ton Crane Arts Collective, Scott Froschauer, Android Jones and Richard Wilks. Also included are the FoldHaus Art Collective, Aaron Taylor Kuffner, HYBYCOZO (Yelena Filipchuk and Serge Beaulieu), Christopher Schardt and others.  Visit for more information.

–Cynthia Kukla


  1. Richard Hansen says:

    July 12th, 2019at 6:25 pm(#)

    I did see the original “City of Dust” exhibit at the museum in Reno. There was NOTHING remotely linking Burning Man to this nude sculpture.

    I do not see the connection. The (quote) “created to encourage female empowerment and self-acceptance” is from another universe. I hesitate to suggest some curator thought a “female” image here would counterbalance the “male” image of a Burning Man. This would be akin to the contrived mad scientist rationale of 1930s horror classic “Bride of Frankenstein.” They needed a woman monster to counterbalance the male monster (who coincidentally was indeed burned in a large fire in one film of the series).

    As the Kukla review details the sexism, what woman of those idealistic features would have a problem with “self-acceptance” and need any encouragement to feel “empowered?” This does not compute. And note the blue is not unlike the color of the “Avatar” people seen in THAT film, which also had larger than life size dimensions.

    The cinematic parallels above are obviously forced. But any justification of that sculpture in this exhibit would also be forced.