The Art of the Gift

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Burning Man, at its most elemental level, provides an opportunity to shift various social norms in unexpected and provocative ways.  Is this the basis for a larger cultural shift, or just a capricious indulgence ….?

If we take the point of view that architecture is an art form, it is largely a transactional one, we design on the basis of commissions.  We have clients, whose interests we are obligated to serve, we consider the Public, as our creations can have a large impact on people’s lives. As such, most often we design under numerous constraints, such as budgets, programming, and governmental restrictions ….. things that we can adapt to, but ultimately not control.

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At Burning Man, one of the powerful experiences is that of 70,000 people being self-expressive.  This ranges from the outfits people wear to the 400+ pieces of artwork contributed by teams of artists.  At first it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of this creative output, but that in itself is not the most provocative part of Burning Man. The aspect that profoundly challenges your normal life experience is that everything along this range of offerings is meant as a gift.  Within this context each participant charts the trajectory of their gifting, these gifts might be quite small and heartfelt, or the size of a five-story building.  While often times the gift is in the form of art, the process of gifting is an art form in itself.

04B_AndromedaThis year I was asked to join an art team as Lead Artist. The vision began with Team Leader Brian Poindexter, who was inspired by the Burning Man 2019 Theme Metamorphoses, to start an Art Project exploring the myth of Andromeda and the expansive nature of the night sky. We decided to challenge the classical myth of Andromeda, wherein a young woman is chained to a rock, left to be devoured by a sea monster that was sent by the Gods to punish her mother for the arrogance of proclaiming her daughter’s beauty.  This led ultimately to the project name; Andromeda Reimagined.  Within this new narrative, Andromeda saves herself, with the help of her community. The “rock and chains” have been morphed into a story of her inner journey to find strength and purpose in a world of chaos and absurdity. In the spirit of interactivity, we are asking people to write the names and stories of their female heroes on the inside walls of the structure. Following several reiterations, the final art piece takes the form of a 26 foot-tall, five-sided pyramid.

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Rarely, as architects, do we design and build, using our own resources, with a pure sense of contributing to the vibrancy of our communities, where our imagination is only restrained by the amount of time and resources, we are capable of committing. 05_AndromedaOut of this “blank canvas”, free of normal constraints, we can build our own vibrancy, in the most deeply authentic way possible, with the work of our own hands. This freedom invites us to explore our innermost motivations, to ask ourselves “what would we do?” out in the dust, for one idyllic week, if for no other reason, than to build for the pure joy of gifting an experience to others. Yet, once back from this moment in the desert, the more fundamental question is, ­ “What if even a small part of this sense of gifting came back with us from the Playa?” ….. what a delightful and humane world we might start to create.

This year Burning Man is taking place in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada: August 25 – September 2 For more information about Burning Man visit: https://burningman.org/

– John Marx, Chief Artistic Officer at Form4 Architecture

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