The Renwick Gallery might look like your classic, 1800s Smithsonian style building, but it’s a transformative space. Walking through the dimly lit dollhouses of Murder Is Her Hobby, the rooms feel much smaller and more intimate. As you crouch and press your face against the glass, it almost seems as if the ceilings have sunken lower. The gallery’s newest exhibition, No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, has the opposite effect. These pieces tower far above you and almost touch the ceiling. Every piece fills the room to the brim, making full use of the space and playing off of the Renwick’s classic architecture.
“We have this incredible platform of a 1860’s building in this East Coast Smithsonian museum,” said Nora Atkinson, who works as the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at the museum. This juxtaposition between the old school disposition of the Smithsonian and the wild ephemeral nature of Burning Man is at the heart of the exhibit. Atkinson and her team have worked hard to strike a balance between the two. “[We’re] able to say that this artwork is worthy of being here, while still trying to transport people to the desert,” she explained, “because it’s so important to understand the desert to understand the art, so I think we’re doing a combination of things.”
That balance is reflected in the art. The first piece of the exhibition is an intricate paper archway done by Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti that’s made up of photography taken by the team. Commissioned for No Spectators, the piece features a lot of the themes Garlington and Bertotti are known for, like their love of eyes, but also includes original photos of animals from the National Zoo. This blend of Burning Man motifs and classic D.C. themes is the perfect starting point. Walking through the archway really does feel like entering another world.
Atkinson has worked hard to present a mixture of Burning Man art. There are pieces from perennial artists that go every year and create art outside of the festival and there is also art from people who only create for Burning Man, but some of the most striking pieces are the ones commissioned by the museum. Since a lot of the original art is either far too big for the space, gets burned or is broken down and mined for parts, the commissioned pieces give you a slightly scaled down version of the kind of things you’d see at Burning Man.
One of our favorites was the mutant vehicle (think of it as an immersive piece of art on wheels) done by Five Ton Crane. “I was having this terrible trouble trying to fit a reasonable sized mutant vehicle through the front doors of an 1860’s building,” said Atkinson, adding that once she saw the proposal for Five Ton Crane’s old school movie theatre themed truck, she knew she had to have it. “I wrote them back instantly and said, ‘I want that, but only if you can build it in segments and not put the engine in yet because our floors can’t handle the weight.'”
The crown jewel of the collection is David Best’s temple. Known for his complex wood sheet temples, the work he has done for the Renwick Gallery is awe inspiring. It’s no surprise that his art was the catalyst for the entire exhibition. “David was the reason I really wanted to do this show from the beginning,” said Atkinson. “Over the course of the last month he’s been building in there with his own crew, which has totally changed the atmosphere here.” The camaraderie and sense of community that Best and his team have brought to the space is the lightning that Atkinson is trying to catch in a bottle.
“One of the beauties of Burning Man as a culture is that anybody who brings artwork there can show it,” said Atkinson. “I think it has been set aside from the art world for so much of the time because of those very things that make it so special.”
No Spectators runs from March 30, 2018 to January 21, 2019