On the Summer Solstice in 1986, San Francisco artists Larry Harvey and Jerry James built a wooden effigy in their basement from scrap lumber, dragged it out to Baker Beach and, with about a dozen revelers looking on, burned it down. This act of creative annihilation would light the fuse for Burning Man, an annual festival devoted to radical self-expression kicking off this year on August 26.
Starting early in the year, a dedicated crew of nearly 100 workers designs and builds that season's Burning Man in adherence to the festival's theme. (2018's theme is "I, Robot.") Standing atop a pyramid pedestal, "the Man" can reach up to 75 feet above the ground, and is typically the tallest installation in a sea of mindblowing sculptures. Towering over the camp like an ancient god, "he's literally the heart and purpose of the community," says Burner Stephanie Sartori.
Construction requires a monumental amount of teamwork and patience: The 2,275-pound simulacrum is created at Black Rock Station, not far from the Playa, and then deconstructed, transported, re-assembled and rigged to the pyramid on site. Security guards and barriers are in place to prevent accidents and the area beneath and surrounding the Man is secured with Kevlar blankets to keep the fire from spreading.
The Man is unveiled at the start of the week, after which attendees leave notes, candles, and other offerings before the Man. (Like Chinese Joss paper, these tokens are burned along with the sculpture at the festival's conclusion.) He's traditionally set ablaze on Saturday night and once he's fully consumed, the perimeter opens up.
Scores of Burners walk as close to the smoldering ashes as they can, says Feingold, "savoring the heat on our skin and the sense of accomplishment, happiness, sadness, and whatever other emotions bubble up."
There are a variety of intentions in fueling the fire—a desire to unblock obstacles, perhaps, or to propagate an affirmation. The conflagration is also a metaphor for life: We're born, we live and then we die.
Burner Leon Feingold describes the sculpture's final moments as a meditative experience: "We sit on the ground watching the Man burn, reflecting on our week and cheering when different parts of it collapse."