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4 / Ceremony and Society

Burning Man Effigy
Burning Man Effigy
Artist / Origin American artist
Region: North America
Date Early 21st century
Material Wood, nails
Dimensions H: approx. 40 ft. (12.19 m.) (without plinth)
Location Black Rock City, Nevada (temporary community)
Credit © C. Lyttle/CORBIS

expert perspective

Tavia Nyong’oAssociate Professor of Performance Studies, New York University

Additional Resources

Bowditch, Rachel. On the Edge of Utopia: Performance and Ritual at Burning Man. Chicago: Seagull Books, 2009.

Burning Man Web site. http://www.burningman.com.

Gilmore, Lee, and Mark van Proyen, eds. AfterBurn: Reflections on Burning Man (Counterculture Series). University of New Mexico: Albuquerque, 2005.

Rockwell, David, and Bruce Mau. Spectacle. London: Phaidon, 2006.

Burning Man Effigy

» American artist

In June of 1986 on a beach in San Francisco, Larry Harvey and Jerry James, with the help of some friends, burned an eight-foot tall figure in the shape of a man.

This act of “radical self-expression” marked the beginnings of the annual Burning Man festival. The week-long event now attracts tens of thousands of participants to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert where they form a temporary experimental community known as Black Rock City. As it has expanded, Burning Man has been forced to adopt certain official rules and policies for safety reasons, but the essential tenets on which the event was founded—immediacy, participation, decommodification, civic and environmental responsibility, radical self-reliance and self-expression—remain the same.

Art-making and performance are core components of the Burning Man festival. Each year participants at Burning Man create and perform works inspired by a given theme (recent themes have included: “Evolution,” “American Dream,” “The Green Man,” and “Hope and Fear: The Future”). Free from the confines of the traditional art world, the collaborative environment of the Burning Man has been fertile ground for outsider and visionary art. A permanent organization, The Black Rock Arts Foundation, now offers grants for artists, sponsors interactive art projects at Burning Man, and supports art that carries the values of Burning Man culture (e.g., impermanence, experimentation, and inclusiveness) into the broader community.

True to its name and roots, the festival culminates each year with the ritual burning of a human effigy, which has in recent years grown to over forty feet. Constructed and erected on-site by event participants, and positioned in the desert so that the sun rises behind it, the Burning Man effigy is an iconic reminder to keep the creative “fires” burning within long after the event has come to a close.

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