"Hell," as P.B. Shelley wanly admitted, "is a city very much like London," but it's hard to imagine this simile gaining much traction at this year's Burning Man. The theme for the 2010 installment of the gigantic annual art party held in the Nevada desert was "Metropolis: The Life of Cities," which seemed a heroic conceit as we arrived Friday before the event to the usual ramshackle sprawl of tents, RVs and portable toilets. Some few thousand toolbox visionaries labored through a long weekend of dust, wind, and freakishly cold temperatures to bring it all together.
Metropolis in the Desert
Burning Man has a way of turning the most PBR-addled wrench-monkey into a philosopher, and this fellow was scarcely alone in needing emergency aesthetic assistance. The Metropolis theme proved wildly popular, unlike
last year's 2008's "The American Dream (America being the very thing most Burners drive to the Black Rock desert to escape) or "The Green Man" (2007's gesture toward sustainability in a festival devoted to conspicuous destruction was rendered incoherent by organizers' decision to rebuild the Man statue after a demented fan burned it prematurely.)
Artists ran ludicrously with this year's theme. Ein Hammer (a towering maul that spurts flames) and Mant Farm, (where humans crawl through segmented tunnels in imitation of that other busy social animal) were immense brute metaphors of industrialization reimagined as a dystopic Disneyland. A pre-restoration version of the Fritz Lang classic Metropolis played thrice nightly on a makeshift theater out in the deep playa, and images of Rotwang and Maria the robot were everywhere, along with calls for Head and Hand to be guided by Heart.
A Fish Barrel for Cops?
The party spirit this year might have been Weimar, but the police presence was uncomfortably Soviet. Outside of co-managing my camp, my chief on-playa contribution to the festival this year was co-writing a story for the Black Rock Beacon about the mounting paranoia cops are instilling in Burners. Officers toured the playa in their own Wild West-themed art car while rows of Bureau of Land Management rangers plowed into the dance-dance euphoria of Opulent Temple in arrest-free displays of pure force. Revelers were reported waking in their tents nose-to-muzzle with police dogs, their handlers intent on squeezing every last cent out of attendees in fines and citations.
Questions on whether Burning Man was becoming a vast fish barrel for cops were raised at a press conference organizers threw on Tuesday in celebration of yet another successful year. I got in the first cop-related question and other reporters took up the issue, eventually winning the concession from Burning Man founder Larry Harvey that police were likely profiling festival attendees as potential lawbreakers. Indeed, one didn't have to walk very far away from the press conference to get the impression that police thought simply holding a ticket for the event was somehow proof of drug abuse and criminality.
Permission Engine Kicks in
Still, the Man went down late Saturday night in a gaudy display of fireworks and pyrotechnics, collapsing in sheets of wind-blown flame as a last minute duststorm came howling up and Burners cakewalked the traditional three-times-round the pyre. The night then exploded into the kind of delicious free-for-all that would wreak scandal, divorce and career-death at even the grungiest rock festival. Harvey calls the festival a "permission engine" and all eight cylinders cranked into overdrive as temperatures nosedived and roughly used partiers collapsed onto couches, hammocks and even the dust-lashed ground. Though there was very little quiet, peace was plainly visible in every weary, dirt-whited face as if adrift in giddy zombie nirvana.
Things were a lot more somber and much colder at Sunday night's Temple burn. This year's structure was called the Temple of Flux; an immense jumble of wooden siding that looked like a canyon made of Triscuits. It burned far better, perishing in a smear of smoke and shower of bright cinders. Sunday on the playa is a time for remembering those winter garments of repentance flung months ago, and many turned in their Burner finery for hoodies and woolen layers as all gathered around the fire.
This ceremony is quiet by tradition and silence was enforced where my girl and I sat by a gentleman from the Beacon aptly named Rhino, who offered to stomp rowdies into ptomaine. As the fire spun into brief glittering tornadoes, a woman nearby burst into tears and the cheer that went up when the structure fell resounded like crusaders breaching the walls of Antioch. By Burner reckoning, the dread year of 2010 had ended and the future, however unappetizing, was yet to be incinerated.
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