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Monday, December 3, 2007

Burning Man's 'Big Rig Jig' Artist Nails It on 1st Try — A Q&A

Posted By on Mon, Dec 3, 2007 at 10:48 AM

(Burning Man 2007 is but a flashback in our singed lobes — all the more reason to re-examine just what exactly went down on da playa. Here's one story)

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Q & A with Mike Ross

By Erin Lindholm, SPECIAL TO THE SFWEEKLY

The art at Burning Man this year collectively represented more than $400,000 in grants from the Black Rock Arts Foundation, plus countless of private contributions. The results were spectacular, but perhaps none more so than “Big Rig Jig,” a sculpture of two 18-wheeler trucks curving like caterpillars, one balanced on top of the other, rising forty-two feet into the sky. Mike Ross, 31, has brought sculptural works out to the annual desert festival for nearly ten years, but nothing on the scale of this fifty-thousand-pound tour de force. We caught up by phone while the Brooklyn-based artist was in San Francisco “finishing up some paperwork.”

Q: So how long ago did you start thinking about this thing?

A: I’ve been thinking about using trucks and oil as a theme for a long time, but winter of last year was when the crystallization happened for this particular form and, inevitably, the sculpture.

Q: Why trucks?

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A: Trucks are a symbol of power. They’re huge and they’re mighty. Driving down the highway and seeing a truck barreling along beside you or right behind you is fear inducing. And they’re pulling all this massive weight. To take something so big and heavy and put it in an organic form and have it above you—I thought it would be an interesting experience to stand underneath and look up at this thing you wouldn’t imagine being in the air.

Q: From a distance, and even up close, the trucks seem so precariously balanced. How much engineering went into the stabilization of the sculpture?

A: Normally I do most of my own engineering, but in this case it was totally out of my league. So I got help from different structural engineers. They made computer models accounting for earthquakes and wind, and also all the weight of the people inside of it.

Q: You called in the experts.

A: Yeah, exactly. Brought in the expert cavalry.

Q: You did most of the actual work at a warehouse in Oakland, right?

A: Yeah, at the American Steel building. We worked there starting in June, although at first we weren’t actually using the building so much as driving all around California trying to find trucks and tankers.

Q: Tell me about that. You have this project, you have the green light for funding, how do you find what trucks you want to use?

A: We talked to as many people as we could. We drove up and down big roads, small roads trying to find them. We would never have done new tankers, which would be astronomically beyond the means of the project and not fitting with the idea anyway, the idea being to take things that had actually been on the road and turn those into a sculpture. But even used ones were really hard to find. The scrap price of the materials was almost more expensive than we could afford. So we had to find someone who was impressed by the project and wanted to help with it, too. Eventually we found our targets.

Q: Were they together?

A: We found the two tankers at the same place. We could not find trucks. Then we finally made friends with this guy who has a truck wrecking and rebuilding operation across the street. We talked to him a little bit, and he’s like, “Oh yeah, I’ll show you where to find a truck.” He drove us out to this yard in Jackson, Calif., maybe two hours away. It was really rural, totally unmarked, except for this little cardboard sign on the road that said “C & O Trucking over the hill.” So we turn on this dirt road, go over a hill, and we’re looking at this huge field—it’s exactly what we had imagined existed but could never find—covered with used trucks sitting there rusting, half-rusted.

Q: What a crazy adventure. Were they drivable?

A: They were not. A friend of ours had a 40-foot flatbed, so we borrowed it and loaded the trucks onto that.

Q: I can just imagine that going down the I-5.

A: Oh man, it looked great. Just a long trailer with all these truck parts stuffed into it. The tankers were driveable. We hired a truck driver friend of the guy who helped us; we drove those things right in.

Q: How early before the general opening of Burning Man did you get out there?

A: About a week. It would only take a day or two to get the sculpture up, but we weren’t finished fabricating it. Dealing with the playa, you need to get there early because half of what you’re doing is setting up your camp and setting up a shop and stuff like that.

Q: Everything just takes longer out there.

A: In Oakland we had a crane and a professional shop, so there was pressure to keep delaying going out. But we also knew that the longer we waited, the less time we’d have to actually put it up and deal with whatever kind of chaos would happen. That was a tough decision, to figure out when to go.

Q: Had you ever fully assembled it before Burning Man?

A: No. Each pair of parts had been put together to verify that they fit and then carefully measured so that we knew the shape it was going to be, but we hadn’t actually put it all together into one piece.

Q: How did it feel to see it together for the first time?

A: [laughs] I wish I could describe that. It was pretty exhilarating. We had been working really, really hard. And to be working so hard with people that you also have very strong feelings for, to be able to share that with people you love, is the greatest thing.

Q: Where is Big Rig Jig right now?

A: Big Rig Jig is in storage and searching for a home.

Q: Where would you like to see it end up?

A: I’d like to see it in a city. Somewhere were a lot of people could see it. Maybe next to a highway; that would make sense to me since it is about transportation infrastructure.

(Readers, where should we put Big Rig Jig? Let's find this abomination a home somewhere in the Bay! SF Weekly will bankroll the endeavor! Give us your suggestions below in the comments.)

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