Eye Level spoke with Nora Atkinson, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, to learn more about her upcoming exhibition No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, opening at the Renwick on March 30, 2018. Cutting-edge artwork created at Burning Man, the annual desert gathering that has become one of the most influential events in contemporary art and culture, will be exhibited in DC for the first time. No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man takes over the entire Renwick Gallery building, exploring the maker culture, ethos and creative spirit of Burning Man.
Eye Level: What inspired you to do an exhibition on Burning Man?
Nora Atkinson: For the last ten years or more, I’ve watched as the artwork coming out of Burning Man has grown in scale and complexity, and has developed into a truly unique artistic genre in this country. Many of the works are really intriguing, particularly to me, from the perspective of craft. Like traditional craft, this work exists outside the mainstream art market—largely uncommercialized as one of its core principles—and much of it has strong roots in the handmade and maker culture. Maturing now, as we enter the digital era, I see it having a resonance with the history of craft and its utopian philosophies. At the core of the modern craft movement in the industrial age, was a belief that hand-making was somehow essential to the human spirit, that it created community and humanized a world growing colder and more mechanized. Today, I see an interesting parallel in the information age, and I think it’s no surprise that so many burners come from Silicon Valley—the two sides seem to go hand-in-hand.
EL: What are you most excited about by this exhibition?
NA: While I’ve studied Burning Man from the outside for years, I’ve never been able to attend before this year. In almost every way I came to Playa knowing what to expect, yet being there was like nothing I could have imagined. Riding out into deep Playa and being surrounded by such an incredible level of human creativity overwhelmed me. The thumping music that dissipates into the emptiness of the desert on all sides, and lights that extend as far as the eye can see was enough to make me break out into spontaneous childish giggles at times. It’s incredible that something like this can exist in such an ephemeral way for literally one week before disappearing into nothingness. I hope we can translate some of that joyful spirit to those who will never have an opportunity to experience it in person.