art installations sectional graphic

Spirituality and Community

The Process and Intention of bringing a Temple to Black Rock City

By John Mosbaugh aka Moze

Out of the desert grew a ritual,
a celebration,
a participatory moment

Out of the moment grew a need
A need fulfilled by a temple
A place to let go,
to remember,
to celebrate

The temple became a tradition
It grew from the playa,
from the temporary city,
from the culture
Its methods were ours,
its tradition was ours
It became a part of our city

And a part of us.
- Jess Hobbs

It is no mistake that Black Rock City is laid out the way it is. Changes to the City map have been made in the last 25 years to accommodate changing population, address new civic needs and create additional spaces for citizens to gather, be they Center Camp Café, the Plazas or the Man Pavilions. Rod Garrett has discussed at length the evolution of the city layout and with this evolution has come experimentation that has been lauded as revolutionary, organic and even fit for settlements on other planets.

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Part of this process has been the appearance of Burning Man's Temple. David Best and Jack Haye brought their Temple of the Mind to the playa in 2000, a structure that would become the first of a long line of Temples. When their friend and fellow Temple builder, Michael Hefflin, tragically died in a motorcycle crash prior to leaving for Burning Man, once on playa, the art installation became a memorial to him.[1] David and Jack both talk about how Black Rock City citizens had a spontaneous reaction in the Temple and began leaving remembrances to people they'd lost. In 2001 David and Jack brought the Temple of Tears also called the Mausoleum, and the tradition of the Temple at Burning Man began. There has been a Temple every year since; David Best being the lead artist for half of them to date, with the other Temples built by a wide range of artists.

This article explores the serious nature of the Temple and its cosmological importance as part of Black Rock City and as part of our shared Burning Man Culture. It discusses artistic and skillset competence as well as what part volunteers take in the process of a Temple build and how that is different from most other large scale art installations.

Burning Man takes the Temple seriously, and while just about everything at Burning Man is amplified both figuratively and literally, the Temple is also amplified, but not with booming music and wild ecstatic dancing or with art cars that slither along the desert floor or with other lunatic cacophony. While the Temple is something that does reflect the mad masquerade and joy of our community, it does so with sacredness, solemnity, a sense of remembrance, grief and renewal that can appear as a stark contrast to the rest of the event. It is that contrast that helps to define the Burning Man community as anything but one dimensional.

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Other tangible representations of the Burning Man ethos such as Burners Without Borders and Black Rock Solar also serve the purpose of defining our community. We are very much about absurdity and expression, but also we are deconstructing prevailing ideologies of what is "normal" and creating postmodern expressions of service and civic duty with a common theme of healing ourselves and the planet we inhabit.

Artists who build Temples in Black Rock City are not just building a large scale art project. They're creating something for the community and fulfilling a civic need as caretakers of that venerable space. One of the first questions one should ask themselves if they want to propose an idea for a Temple is not "WHAT am I doing this for?" but rather "WHO am I doing this for?" from what I have ascertained after talking with some of the artists who have built Temples at Burning Man.

Structure of passage and hierophany of Black Rock City

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A long trail of rites and initiations [2] lie along the central spine that begins just off the highway pavement and on to Black Rock Desert. Pilgrims to Burning Man move through porticos of the Gate, up Black Rock City's entrance road flagellum, past Burma Shave signs that educate the anticipation-drenched denizens in carnival conveyances with values and initiations, up through the Greeters station and into Black Rock City proper. Once inside the circle streets of the City, the backbone continues through Center Camp and through Center Camp Café where you are presented with a choice of staying where you can still purchase things like coffee and ice and can be entertained (or entertain). Or you may, hopefully, continue on your journey.

Moving along the walkway from the Café, you encounter the Keyhole; an imaginary last point before you step across the Esplanade into an unknown realm where nothing but art awaits you. If you choose to wander up the spired promenade to the Man you will reach what has been called the "Axis Mundi" of Black Rock City. This concept has been discussed by Lee Gilmore in her book Theater in a Crowded Fire [3] and on the Burning Man Blog where she writes, "The placement of the Man at the BRC's center readily evokes what historian of religion Mircea Eliade called the axis mundi-a symbolic manifestation of the sacred center of the cosmos and the location of hierophany-the eruption of the sacred into the profane world."[4]

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Eliade and Arnold Van Genep figure heavily in the ontological conception of the layout of Black Rock City. 2003's theme Beyond Belief was born partially out of Eliade's (and Rudolf Otto's) writings[5],[6] and 2011's theme, Rites of Passage, drew heavily from Van Gennep's book [7] of the same name. These ideas are integral to the intellectual foundation of the layout of Black Rock City that Larry Harvey has noted is "open in the front, open to infinity".

The spot along that grand promenade that stands as the last large gathering point before reaching the sprawling "wholly other" outer playa, is the Temple, beyond which are a scattering of projects out to the trash fence and that symbolic infinity. The Temple is at the edge of where we bring order to chaos. It is where our community goes to unburden themselves.

Why is this talk of cosmology important? We know how to get to the Temple from the highway.

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[1] Lori Van Meter. "The Temples at Burning Man", 2007 p. 3.
[2] Moze, Initiations and Salutations. Burning Man Blog. 2011.
[3] Lee Gilmore, Theater In A Crowded Fire (University of California Press 2010)
[4] Lee Gilmore, The Temple: Sacred Heart of Black Rock City. Burning Man Blog. 2010
[5]Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (English Translation, Harcourt, Inc. 1957)
[6] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (Oxford Univ. Press 1923)
[7] Arnold Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Univ. of Chicago Press 1960)