A Carnival of Mirrors… Burning Man’s 2015 Theme: Part II

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most ferocious beast of all? Cat dreams. I thought this carnival poster at Burning Man 2015 was particularly relevant to the theme.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most beautiful kitty of all? Or is that most ferocious? Cat dreams. This carnival poster at Burning Man 2015 made me smile. I thought it was perfect for the theme.

“From the looking glass to the selfie, people seek answers to the riddle of identity in their own reflections. Yet even the most perfect mirror shows only the persona, not the person.” Larry Harvey, cofounder of Burning Man

 

Do you ever look at yourself in the mirror and make faces? Come on, confess, I know you have. We are drawn to our image like a moth to flames. Sometimes we like what we see, other times— maybe not so much. I remember checking a mirror once when I had started my solo bicycle journey around North America. It scared the heck out of me. It was my second day out and I’d ridden 65 miles. My sole preparation for the trip had been to increase my daily consumption of beer from one to two cans a night. Somehow, I had missed the message that you are supposed to ride your bike before starting off on a 10,000-mile journey.

I could barely get off the bike that night. My right leg refused to reach high enough to get over the crossbar. It had gone on strike. Laughing so hard I almost fell down, I stumbled into the office of a cheap motel and got a room for the night. My first priority was a shower, even before I hit the restaurant across the road and ordered beer, lots of it. After taking my clothes off, I made the mistake of glancing in the mirror. A great white whale was staring back at me. It was both my persona and person. “You damn fool,” I said to the whale, “what in the world do you think you are doing?” It didn’t have an answer. I declared the third day of my six-month trip a layover.

There were lots of mirrors at Burning Man, playing off the Carnival of Mirrors’ theme and doing what they do best— encouraging people to stare at themselves. It was pretty humorous, especially when Burners started posing. I looked at as many mirrors as anyone, but I avoided ballerina and butt shots, wisely so.

Of all the mirror at Burning Man 2015, this one seem to attract the most attention for both posing and photo ops.

Of all the mirrors at Burning Man 2015, this sculpture by Kirsten Berg seemed to attract the most attention for both posing and photo ops. The irreverent thought of this woman displaying her best assets flitted through my mind.

"Hmmm, I wonder what I look like upside down," this woman seemed to be saying.

“Hmmm, I wonder what I look like upside down,” this woman seemed to be saying. Or maybe she was praying “I hope I don’t fall down and break my head.”

On the other hand...

On the other hand…

I am on the left, leaning over on the handle bars of my bike and amusing myself taking photos of people posing.

I made it into all of the photos, a sort of photo bomb waiting to happen. I am on the left, leaning over on the handle bars of my bike and amusing myself taking photos of people posing. The vastness of the Black Rock Desert spreads out behind me. The guy on the right is dutifully taking photos of the woman pretzel.

I also found more carnival posters where my friend Tom stood in as a model. Close by was a Museum of Cultural Appropriation and Dead Things. The latter would have fit right in to a circus sideshow.

This carnival poster is a takeoff on P.T. Barnum's first major hoax in the sideshow business, the Feejee Mermaid who had the tail of a fish and the head of the monkey. You may recall it was Barnum who said "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

This carnival poster is a takeoff on P.T. Barnum’s first major hoax in the sideshow business, the Feejee Mermaid, who supposedly had the tail of a fish and the head of the monkey. You may recall it was Barnum who said “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

While I am dealing with mermaids, this cigar chomping cutie represents the fact that tattoo covered people became a part of the sideshow business in the 1950s. Check out my blog on the Triangle Tattoo Museum if you haven't already seen it.

While I am dealing with mermaids, this cigar chomping cutie represents the fact that tattoo covered people became a part of the sideshow business in the 1950s. Check out my blog on the Triangle Tattoo Museum in Fort Bragg, California if you haven’t already seen it.

As you might imagine, there are lots of tattoos on display at Burning Man. I was particularly impressed with this guys art.

As you might imagine, there are lots of tattoos on display at Burning Man. I was particularly impressed with this guy’s art.

My friend Tom Lovering, good naturedly posed with some of the sideshow art.

My friend Tom Lovering (known as Adios on the Playa), good-naturedly posed with some of the sideshow art. He was hoping for a little faith and charity.

Here, Tom checks out Eve's apple (right?) afraid that she might offer him a bite.

Here, Tom checks out Eve’s apple (right?) afraid that she might offer him a bite.

I found Hammerhead at the

I found Hammerhead at the Museum of Cultural Appropriation and Dead Things, where I also found Butthead, featured below.

Okay, I admit this is a little outrageous, and has no place in a decent blog like mine (grin), but it is exactly the kind of thing you would have found in the old carnival sideshows.

Okay, I admit this is a little outrageous, and has no place in a tame blog like mine (LOL), but it is exactly the kind of thing you would have found in the old carnival sideshows.

As you might expect at a circus or carnival, there were also entertainers galore, jesters, and clowns. I’ve always thought of Burning Man as a three-ring circus and Burning Man 2015 was hardly more so than any other year. The Center Camp Cafe and Black Rock City are constantly filled with people performing circus acts, Barnum and Bailey would have loved to feature mutant vehicles in their circus parades, and the entrance to the media tent at Burning Man 2015 would have made a great entry to a fun house (or political campaign?).

There is a great deal of talent at Burning Man and the Center Camp Cafe is always filled with people performing, as much for themselves as others.

There is a great deal of talent at Burning Man and the Center Camp Cafe is always filled with people performing, as much for themselves as others.

I will have a whole blog, or maybe two or three on mutant vehicles at Burning Man, but I thought this jester fit in here.

I will have a whole blog, or maybe two or three, on mutant vehicles at Burning Man, but I thought this jester fit in here.

The perfect clown. Check out his eyes. (Photo by Don Green.)

The perfect clown. Check out his eyes. (Photo by Don Green.)

My last photo for this essay. I loved the media tent, appropriately labeled the media circus. I almost expected to see the 'The Donald' or some other prominent politician hanging out there. The teeth drew back to provide a door.

My last photo for this essay. I loved the media tent, appropriately labeled the media circus. I almost expected to see the ‘The Donald’ or some other prominent politician hanging out there. The teeth drew back to provide a door.

NEXT BLOG: Where to go is the question? I think I will take you out to the Temple, one of the most beautiful ever at Burning Man.

 

Burning Man Themes… Reflecting the Mind of Larry Harvey

One of four gateways to the 2015 Burning Man carnival. William Blake's poem "TIGER, tiger, burning bright. In the forests of the night,. What immortal hand or eye. Could frame thy fearful symmetry?" was printed around the edge.

One of four gateways to the 2015 Burning Man Carnival. William Blake’s poem “Tiger, tiger, burning bright, In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” was printed around the edge.

Larry Harvey created the first theme for Burning Man in 1995, ten years after he had co-founded the event. Ever since, he and his crew have been churning out a new topic every year. I picture him sitting somewhere in San Francisco, puffing away on his ever-present cigarette, and waiting for inspiration to strike. Finally, the proverbial light bulb flashes. Why don’t we make this year The Nebulous Entity, or Caravansary, or Beyond Belief? It would be interesting to track Harvey’s thought process.

The first theme was Good and Evil. Undoubtedly, there were costumed angels and devils wandering all over the Playa and Black Rock City. There still are. I recall one year when every other woman seemed to have sprouted wings. Maybe there was a sale on. I ran into a bit of good and evil myself at 2015’s Burning Man. I spun a wheel of fortune and was told, “you will soon discover if you are the good twin or the evil one.” Did I really want to know? Later I found a graphic sideshow poster of how it might look.

A wheel of fortune at Burning Man suggested I would soon find out whether I was a good or evil twin.

A wheel of fortune at Burning Man suggested I would soon find out whether I was a good or evil twin.

Carnival or sideshow art has been used for over a century to pull people into sideshows where all sorts of unusual sights were promised.

I must say, being evil looks a bit more interesting. Carnival or sideshow art has been used for over a century to pull people into sideshows where all sorts of unusual sights are promised.Vintage original art is now worth thousands of dollars to collectors.

Burning Man invites individuals, groups and artists to participate in and interpret its annual theme through their costumes, camps and creative works. Here’s a complete list of themes since 1995:

2016 — Da Vinci’s Workshop

2015 — Carnival of Mirrors

2014 — Caravansary

2013 — Cargo Cult

2012 — Fertility 2.0

2011 — Rites of Passage

2010 — Metropolis – The Life Of Cities

2009 — Evolution – A Tangled Bank

2008 — American Dream

2007 — The Green Man

2006 — Hope & Fear

2005 — Psyche

2004 — Vault of Heaven

2003 — Beyond Belief

2002 — The Floating World

2001 — The Seven Ages

2000 — The Body

1999 — The Wheel of Time

1998 — The Nebulous Entity

1997 — Mysteria

1996 — The Inferno

1995 — Good and Evil

The 2015 theme was built around the concept of carnivals and mirrors. A city of tents grew up around the Man featuring carnival posters, mirrors and games of chance. Four large gateways invited Burners in to where hucksters pushed their games of chance, or just strangeness. I checked my image in each of the mirrors but skipped the ring toss where the posts took on a definite phallic look. I stopped to watch a show where a talented acrobat displayed her skills, and I helped pull ropes that made a giant skeleton dance.

A devilish gateway into Burning Man 2015.

A devilish gateway into then Burning Man Carnival. Note: I arrived early at Burning Man this year before the crowds gathered. Many of the Carnival attractions and other installations throughout Black Rock City were still being set up.

I found this humorous guy hanging out inside.

I found this humorous guy hanging out inside.Nice tongue.

Taking a page from Dante's Inferno, this gateway switched the words from

Taking a page from Dante’s Inferno, this circus elephant gateway switched the words from “Abandon all Hope” to “Abandon all Despair.”

The fourth gate into the carnival was this nerdy looking young woman.

The fourth gate into the carnival was this nerdy looking young woman.

A stage in the carnival featured ongoing shows such as this flexible acrobat.

A stage in the carnival featured ongoing shows such as this flexible acrobat.

A large skeleton puppet had ropes that Burners could use to make the skeleton dance.

A large skeleton puppet had ropes that Burners could use to make the skeleton dance. Carnival poster art surrounded the Man and what Burning Man called its Fun House.

Following are three sideshow posters that I found particularly amusing including this tattooed cat.

Following are three sideshow posters that I found particularly amusing including this two-headed tattooed cat.

Ancient Aliens...

Ancient Aliens…

A Playa Chicken.

And a Playa Chicken.

My friend Don Green took this photo of the Fun House entrance. I will be featuring many of Don's photos throughout this series.

My friend Don Green took this photo of the Fun House entrance. I will be featuring many of Don’s photos throughout this series.

Don seems a little worried about the doctor that was prepared to operate on him in one of the carnivals side tents.

Don seems a little worried about the doctor that was prepared to operate on him in one of the carnivals side tents.

I was taken with the detail in this painting that welcomed Burners into the Fun House.

I was taken with the detail in this painting that welcomed Burners into the Fun House. (See Don’s photo of the entrance above.)

A closeup of the face.

A closeup of the face.

And even more detail featuring a gypsy woman.

And even closer shot featuring a gypsy woman with her incredible detail.

Various mirrors welcomed Burners inside the Fun House. I took this photo of Squirrels on my T-shirt. The caption was "Birdseed, what birdseed?"

Various mirrors welcomed Burners inside the Fun House. I took this fractured mirror selfie of my see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil squirrels  T-shirt. The backward caption is “Birdseed, what birdseed?”

A final shot for today, this one looking up at the Man from inside the Fun House.

A final shot for today, this one looking up at the Man from inside the Fun House.

The 2016 Theme, “Da Vinci’s Workshop,” is designed to draw a parallel between Medieval Florence and Burning Man in terms of art, technical innovation, and patronage. (No one has ever accused Larry Harvey of being shy, modest, or lacking in ambition when it comes to promoting Burning Man, but seeing Black Rock City as the equivalent to Florence, and as “the epicenter of a new renaissance,” is something of a leap.)

Still, the art being inspired by Burning Man is very impressive. And the 2016 Man being “surrounded by a public square, a piazza lined with workshops, each representing a guild…” with the guilds being “self-invented and devoted to the interactive manufacture of whatever participating artists and inventors can imagine, ” sounds like fun.

NEXT BLOG: We will travel into Black Rock City and out into the Playa to explore other ways the 2015 theme of Carnival and Mirrors was represented.

Okay, Burning Man Has a Touch of Cult… Burning Man 2013

Art projects are encouraged to reflect the year's theme. These oil tankers welded together reflected environmental concern.

Art projects are encouraged to reflect the year’s theme. These oil tankers welded together reflected environmental concern.

Each year, Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, selects the event’s theme for the year. Art projects, theme camps, mutant vehicles, etc. are invited to use the theme for inspiration, or not. Burning Man is a do-your-own-thing kind of place

Psyche, The Green Man, Evolution, and Beyond Belief are examples of past themes. They are relatively easy to relate to. This year’s theme is Cargo Cults, which strikes me as odd. What is Harvey thinking?

The personal image I use for this blog and Facebook was taken the year Burning Man had an evolution theme. The ape was part of art piece on evolution. There is some question whether the ape or I represent an advance in evolution.

The personal image I use for this blog and Facebook was taken the year Burning Man theme was about hope, fear and the future. Are we evolving toward something more positive? BTW, there is some question whether the ape or I represent the advance in evolution. (Photo by Ken Lake)

I first learned of Cargo Cults in a zany book by Christopher Moore, The Island of the Sequined Love Nun. Moore is one of those folks whose imagination can take you on a laughing roller coaster ride and leave you asking, “What just happened?” If you like strange, I highly recommend his books.

Anyway, Cargo Cults were a phenomenon that grew out of the impact of World War II on certain South Seas islands. Traditional cultures with little knowledge of or contact with the modern world were suddenly buried under an avalanche of technology and material goods as first Japan and then the Allies occupied the islands.

On one level, it was like manna from heaven. On another, it resembled hell. Traditional cultures buckled under the impact and native inhabitants were left without the underpinnings of their belief systems. When the allies packed up at the end of World War II and took their goodies with them, the natives were left with nothing.

Cargo Cults were the result. They carried a mixed message. Forget all of the modern stuff and return to your traditional practices. Think of a fundamentalist preacher urging “Old Time Religion” as a response to modern trends. But there was more. Returning to the past would also get the goods flowing again, the manna from heaven. The natives went out into the jungle, built airplane runways, and waited in expectation. Their cult included the belief that the cargo would magically reappear.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa, I watched the conflict between modern and traditional cultures. And I watched as my students struggled with the conflict. Existing with one foot in each world creates a difficult balancing act. It is easy to get lost. I also think it is easy to lose what is good in the old and take on what is bad in the new. “Dark magic,” xenophobic tribalism and grasping materialism make a poisonous brew… regardless of the culture. Liberia and its tragic civil wars certainly proved this.

And yet, the clash of cultures has often created the dynamic mix of old and new that allows and encourages us to move forward, to see old problems in new ways, and to find new solutions.

I can’t wait to see how this year’s theme will be handled at Burning Man. The stalwarts of the event believe Burning Man is more than a huge party in the desert. They like to believe they are creating a new culture. And maybe, to a degree, they are. If they are a little cultish in their approach, it comes with the territory. The question is how a Cargo Cult fits in.

In my next blog, I will explore what I consider the positive aspects of the Burning Man “culture.”

The Burning of the Man at Burning Man (and lots of other stuff) represents the impermanence in life. But it also represents rebirth...

The Burning of the Man at Burning Man (and lots of other stuff) represents the impermanence of life and letting go. It’s a key element in the Burning Man culture. But it also represents rebirth…

Each year, like the Phoenix, a new Man rises out of the ashes and sits on a base representing the year's theme. This year's Man will be sitting on top of a flying saucer. Put that together with Cargo Cult... Hmmm.

Each year, like the Phoenix, a new Man rises out of the ashes and sits on a base representing the year’s theme. This year’s Man will be sitting on top of a flying saucer. Put that together with Cargo Cult… Hmmm.