Burning Books

Two new art books about Burning Man remind you how nice things are in S.F. when all the Burners go away

Burning Man is a Bay Area atheist's version of the Rapture: For one precious week a year, a lot of people who believe in something you don't magically disappear and life around town for the heretics left behind suddenly becomes easier and much less annoying. Muni trains are delightfully empty, a table at Greens or Café Gratitude is easily attained on a Friday night or a Sunday morning, upsetting street sightings of dreadlocked fashion disasters cease, and your acupuncturist suddenly has all the time in the world to cup the hell out of your chi blockages. Yet, as a lot of irritating people disappear from the neighborhood, many pals do, too, and you get the nagging sense that maybe the "fuck it, let's just be weird" Burning Man ethos is what made your delicious, organic, emotionally engaged quinoa brunch at Gratitude possible in the first place.

Seeing as I don't generally like other people, heat, dust, or public nudity, I think of Burning Man the same way I think of the big earthquake that will kill me: It's an abstract idea I try to avoid thinking about in exchange for all the lovely amenities of this city. Yet, like the thought of my water heater shaking loose from the wall and scalding me to death as I eat dinner one night, the concept of Burning Man is too delightfully horrifying to ignore completely.

Which is what makes this summer's little crop of Burning Man coffee table books rather fun — much like hearing your friend's rollickingly disgusting tale of an Ecstasy-addled hour in a mechanized groping booth on the Playa, you can experience a bit of the lunacy in the comfort and relative cleanliness of your own living room.

The festival gets the Serious Art Monograph treatment in Burning Man: Art in the Desert, an oddly somber black-and-white photobook with text and pictures by local career Burner A. Leo Nash. Daniel Pinchbeck, who has become a kind of go-to guy when the Man needs someone intellectual to explain California fruitiness, provides the Serious Art-Writing Introduction, and Nash's low-key and engaging personal essays describe the Burner experience, from maxing out credit cards in order to create a giant artwork you plan on torching, to the long quiet drive into the desert. Representative Pinchbeck quote: "I consider Burning Man to be a fulcrum for the evolution of consciousness on the planet, where cutting-edge scientists consort with neo-pagan warlocks, and arcane bits of knowledge are exchanged at hyperspeed." Um, guess you had to be there?

Nash grew up around his family's steel fabricating plant, and he seems to have an intuitive feel for the lonely, large-scale poetry of industrial structures. There are hardly any people in his contemplative photos, just massive bizarre metal artworks, barren desert, and open sky, rendered in a spectrum of grays. Some of the structures look like they'd been abandoned there for decades, not at all like the products of recent frenzied activity. The book makes this girl strangely homesick for Detroit.

Jessica Bruder's cacophonous and enthusiastic Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man, on the other hand, captures the sense that Burning Man is a symptom of a willfully adolescent, attention-deficit culture — even the typesetting is hyperactive and childish, jittering unexpectedly between fonts and GETTING REALLY BIG ALL OF A SUDDEN, as if the very idea of sitting around and calmly reading normally printed text is somehow too boring and lame, even when juxtaposed with full-color images of mud-caked naked revelers and big things on fire and drugged-out cello players. It's probably a better representation of the festival's chaos and lunacy than Nash's work, but between the wacky typesetting and the groan-inducing text, it's a struggle to get through. For example, I thought I hated drum circles, but I really had no idea how deep my contempt went until I read this breathless account from the 350-page book (everything [sic]):

"I started playing. I was naked, and it was one of those beautiful nights, practically a full moon, you know, and within moments this change started happening," Matty recalls. "People started dancing. People started clapping. You know, other drummers started approaching. ‘Hey can I jam with you? ‘Of course.'Belly dancers started approaching. ‘Hey can I jam with you? ‘Of course.'Fire dancing started eruptingrightaroundme. ADJwasdrivingbyonamobilerig. ‘Hey, can I lock in with some of the beats? And this thing, immediately, the very first time, just went.............. POW! IT EXPLODED." ... the crowd's mutation blew Matty's mind.

I've never been so grateful to be at home contemplating my water heater.

 
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