Director: Gerald Fox
The festival season may be a little truncated this year but Gerald Fox’s new documentary about the creation of large-scale installations at Burning Man will partially make up for it. Filmed in 2018, Art on Fire is a tribute to founder Larry Harvey, as a community of international artists convene in the Black Rock Desert to construct a city of art. A year in the planning and 6 months in construction, most of the objects will be burned to the ground on the final night.
Fox’s documentary primarily follows the work of French architect and London resident Arthur Mamou-Mani whose computer-generated design for The Temple is constructed over several days and will be the physical and spiritual centrepiece of the event. The Man Base with a large-scale effigy of a human figure, burned on the Saturday night, is Fox’s secondary focus under the direction of Andrew Johnstone with fret work designed by Kate Raudenbush – a key moment in the week-long festival.
Art on Fire has the feel of a National Geographic-style construction story that marvels at feats of engineering and the brilliance of teams able to erect major structures, but instead of slaves building the pyramids Fox gives us an army of artists, architects, assembly workers, technical specialists and volunteers who piece together the large-scale installations. The end-product is almost secondary to process of taking a two-dimensional design and understanding the compromises, issues and dramas that come from physical creation.
Around the two central projects, Fox considers some of the wider contributions from a selection of the 400 artists expected to fill the expanse of Nevada desert, the organisers, art world attendees and especially those who knew Harvey. The resulting film gives a sense of the scale and impact of the Burning Man Festival while understanding the personal connections it has forged, resulting in a thematically aligned but individual collection of pieces made of materials as diverse of wood, glass, recycled metal and plastic.
As the artists deliver and install their work, Fox also notes the unforgiving nature of the desert surface, the expanding and contracting of the earth affecting the stability and alignment of the various structures that need to be pieced together. We see artists battling dust storms and heat in the weeks before the event begins while Fox’s cinematography beautifully captures the contrasting image of the festival lights as the event gets underway before the eventual fires that leave a giant ashy clean-up operation.
The creators themselves are full of character, rhapsodising about the festival and the meaning of their work, noting the 2018 robotics and technology theme. Peter Hazel’s large glass jellyfish, Dana Albany’s metal person made of recycled materials including a champagne net and cherry picker are fascinating, as is Shane Evans’ figure constructed from aeroplane parts. Most significant though, and crucial to Fox’s argument about the value of this international showcase is the comment from a curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum who draws the line between independent ‘maker movement’ and commodification where art of this nature hasn’t broken into the mainstream gallery market making Burning Man a unique artistic experience for visitors.
Sometimes, the personal stories feel a little tangential including the wedding of the Temple architect in his own creation, stretching the subject matter of the documentary from the art of Burning Man to a wider celebration of the festival, its attendees and the connections it engenders. These, slightly sentimental, digressions muddy Fox’s focus, making the 90-minute runtime feel overlong even if this week-long event in Black Rock Desert, which began in 1986, still inspires considerable devotion from regular attendees.
Art on Fire is a testament to the creative instincts of the artists it attracts but also to the very real technical and engineering challenges of hosting an event on a major scale. Growing out of the dust for a few weeks, the construction of these enormous sculptures make for a fascinating study and while burning it all to the ground seems heretical, contributors insist it is an act of devotion. This art was never meant to be kept.
Online Release: 22nd August 2020 on worldwide TVOD platforms iTunes, Amazon Prime, GooglePlay and Vimeo on Demand.