Get a Taste of Burning Man Without the Burning Man

Also, bid farewell to one of the Bay Area’s most prominent street artists.

Even in San Francisco, where Burning Man was born, the event has diehard haters — people who deride its perceived elitism, faux utopianism, and out-of-reachism. Never mind that these haters may have never been to Burning Man or met anyone who has. Like people who despise movies they’ve never seen or countries they’ve never visited, the Burning Man naysayers are resolute about their resoluteness.

Now is their chance to consider changing. “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man,” which runs through Feb. 16 at the Oakland Museum of California, demystifies the Burning Man experience — including its art component, which is an essential part of the annual Nevada event. So in Oakland, you get to enter (for free!) an ornate wooden temple that’s similar to temples built for Burning Man. In fact, artist David Best, one of Burning Man’s biggest names — who’s designed and coordinated the construction of around half the event’s temples — created the Oakland structure, which he’s labeled a place for visitors to “mourn the loss of family from violence, deportation, immigration, incarceration, suicide, or alienation.” Burning Man has a deserved reputation for hedonism, but organizers also provide venues for introspection and self-reflection where Burners can go to cry, close their eyes, and mourn for things that are painful to consider.   

Inside Oakland’s ticketed exhibit is the opposite of mournful: Burning Man art that’s instantly joyful, wondrous, silly, and playful, like Richard Wilks’ Evotrope — a giant, bike-like zoetrope with spinning, eye-festooned wheel that seems straight from Alice in Wonderland. Then there’s Capitol Theater, by a group called Five Ton Crane, that’s an open-air, art deco movie theater on wheels — complete with screening film and 1950s-era neon. And next to that is Shrumen Lumen — two 7-foot-tall origami mushrooms, by the collective FoldHaus, that expand and contract and make the kind of noise you’d expect from a creaking house. Neat!

“No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” is no substitute for Burning Man. Inside Oakland’s museum, people aren’t collaborating with strangers on arrangements for food and sleeping. There’s no collective gathering around burning objects or high-minded ideals like “radical inclusion” and “communal effort.” Instead, it’s a lot of gazing at art objects, sartorial wonders, and exhibit displays — a continuous traipse of eye candy. 

David Best’s outdoor Temple of Reunion is the exception. Oakland visitors have written on the temple’s wooden walls, and they’ve tucked small wooden notes into crevices — just like Burners do at Burning Man, and just like people have done at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., which has situated a David Best temple inside a second-floor indoor gallery. With high ceilings, expansive carpet, and perfect mood lighting, the Renwick temple really feels like a bona fide place for contemplation. SF Weekly recently visited Renwick Gallery, which organized the traveling “No Spectators” exhibit that’s now in Oakland, and witnessed people there who were in deep thought and practically praying. On the exterior of Oakland’s temple, people have written notes like “RIP dad,” and “Rest. Robbie. You went too soon,” and “Goodbye to who I used to be.”

“No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” won’t answer the question, “Is Burning Man worth attending?” That question is unanswerable until you go to the Playa yourself. And the exhibit’s Oakland iteration all but says that Burning Man is as much a mental state as a physical one. Whether it’s the middle of the night in Nevada or the middle of the day in Oakland, Burning Man’s art is supposed to smooth the way to entering that state of mind. You can’t blame the art if you don’t reach that state. Maybe you’re not in the mood, and even Burners would say that’s okay. 

Street art

BiP, which is short for “Believe in People,” has become one of the world’s most important street artists. SF Weekly has profiled his work over the past five years, and did an exclusive interview with him in 2017 about his giant San Francisco mural called Figurine. In August, when BiP began to do another in his series of large-scale works here — this one located near the corner of Franklin and Oak called Baby with a Handgun — he said it on Instagram with great triumph and celebration: There was BiP on the roof of the location, wearing his white, hoodied painting suit and sunglasses, stretching and bobbing like a champion boxer about to enter the ring. A drone video recorded BiP’s embarkation toward a work that promised to be provocative and a visual triumph. But three months later, it’s all gone to hell. Baby with a Handgun is finished — but so is BiP, he says, after the San Francisco Chronicle revealed the location of his studio inside the building. 

The reveal happened in the paper’s November profile of BiP and his work that’s critical of police brutality. The artist had the Chronicle remove the floor number from the article,  which now has an editor’s note to that effect. BiP said on Instagram that the information led the police to his studio and that there was a “security incident.” 

“I stayed up all night thinking and I’ve decided I’m just walking away from BiP,” the artist says in the Instagram post. “I just want to be a normal guy in SF and work behind the scenes.”

So for now, that’s it. No more BiP. His last Instagram posting, which announced his de facto retirement from upfront, public artmaking, featured a single, black screen — as if it were a funeral wrap that covered a coffin. “For everyone that was with me all these years thank you so much,” he wrote. “I tried really hard and I can let that be enough now. I will never give up on what I feel is the greatest city in the world. Long live SF and the people that make this a great city.” 

On Instagram, BiP’s fans are hoping his hiatus is just temporary. In addition to denigrating the Chronicle’s reporter, they’ve correctly noted that, “Your art will never die.” Which is true. Baby with a Handgun is still at the corner of Franklin and Oak. Still inspiring pedestrians to stop and look. Still prompting them to take photos. Still causing people to wonder what exactly the giant artwork is saying. The baby has a skeptical look on its face. Its finger isn’t on the trigger, so we’re seeing a moment of intense decision-making. To shoot or not to shoot? It’s ridiculous, of course, that an infant is even in that position. But that ridiculousness is a big theme in what might be BiP’s last San Francisco work.  

“No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” through Feb. 16 at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak, Oakland. $12-$21; 510-318-8400 or museumca.org.

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