The Universe Revolves Around YOU: an interview with Zachary Coffin


I’ve believed Zachary Coffin was part of a select group of great Burning Man artists ever since I first encountered his Temple of Gravity in 2003. He is one of the artists out there who builds something you can’t help but see. You will visit it throughout your week there and you will use as a landmark. He fills up the space because he works on such a huge scale and he fills it with awe. His works on playa include 2001’s Rockspinner, 2003’s Temple of Gravity, 2005’s Colossus and this year, as you’ll read below, he’s bringing us The Universe Revolves around YOU.

Colossus by Zachary Coffin

Zach is an artist who works with really big things and by big things I mean twenty thousand pound spinning and hanging boulders, heavy steel structures that allow you to interact with the weight of freight trains, and the pull of the Moon on the Earth to power Tidal Indicators.  He’s like a bright spark, excited about what he’s doing yet low key about it even though he’s larger than life in many ways. Talking with him about his art you get the feeling you’re talking to an incarnation of some great God of the mountain who is pulling out stones so large that more than one would pulverize a semi with its weight. And he’s building these structures to handle that weight, then loading the whole thing up and bringing them out to Black Rock City to make those stones seem as light as a row of birds on a wire.

He and I sat down over beers across from the Burning Man HQ last week and Zach told me,

“You see a huge boulder. Ever since you were a little kid, you were never able to move that boulder. I can make it possible for you to move that boulder and through that process you can begin to understand what’s possible through engineering and through technology.” He stopped and thought a moment then added, “on a visceral level.”

He has a bit of a twinkle in his eye when he tells you his ideas, like he’s in on something so large you’re only going to get a small glimpse of what lives there, but that glimpse is big enough to blow your mind. I’ve met a fair share of artists and Zach’s one of the sincere ones. He smiles a lot and has a good humor about him and he gives off a genuinely kind vibe.  Update:  There is now a KickStarter campaign for the project. Please donate if you can:

Zach is currently working two projects: the Universe Revolves Around YOU for the Keyhole at Burning Man and Tidal Time for the San Francisco Bay, hopefully in time for a temporary anchorage during America’s Cup.

Zachary Coffin installing Horn Section, photo by TWMeyer

When he graduated High School, he worked as photojournalist for a while then attended Cooper Union and was awarded an artist in residency at Socrates Sculpture Park. I asked him how he made the change from photojournalism to sculpture and where did all the physics and mechanics come from. Did he learn that all on his own?

“I pretty much learned it on my own. I grew up around heavy equipment to some extent. My father was a crane operator, for a while, he did about ten years in the union before he went on and got a PHD in Dendrology which is tree and forestry management, but I must have absorbed it somehow.”

“When I was doing photography… I was always fascinated by the Forms of Industry, that clear clarity. .. and also of the Aesthetic of Function. If you look at all my work I don’t’ have any ornament. Everything has a function. I try to go through a process where I eliminate everything extra. It’s a sculpture so there’s no reason for ornament to be there if there isn’t a function for it.”

“I was a photojournalist for three years, right out of high school but I saw the writing on the wall. Digitization was coming. Also as I started studying art history I didn’t see how I could make a contribution to the canon of photography. Right before I went to Cooper Union I moved into a warehouse of a metal sculptor and he let me play with his toys and I realized I had a real knack for structure; for forms and steel and how to build things and the way three dimensional objects go together. So as soon as I went to Cooper Union, I actually got exempted from the photography requirement and I focused entirely on sculpture, as much as I could, but they made me take a year of color theory which is maybe why all my sculptures are gray. I studied with a main student of Josef Albers for a year and after that I decided I want it all gray…”

His sculptures are indeed gray and they almost appear to be extensions of the playa at times throughout the event. He continued,

“I had this one professor who said ‘If you can’t make it good, make it big, and if you can’t make it big, paint it red’, so I proceeded to make one of my first sculptures out of school both big and red.”

Rockspinner by Zachary Coffin

That piece was called Allegrow and was installed in New York City. I asked him how he made it out to the West Coast from New York and first became involved with Burning Man.

“Burning Man actually was a pivotal moment. I went to Burning Man in 96. I was working as a welder building drill rigs up in Vallejo. That’s where I learned a lot of the stuff that influences me now, the techniques I use in my forms. I basically took a long weekend off because Burning Man was four days back then. I think I left on Friday afternoon, Michael Christian, me and his girlfriend at the time all hopped into a pickup truck and drove to Burning Man and I had no idea what to expect. We got there and there was this dude sitting on hay bales and he was surprised we had tickets, then he did the ‘OK drive six miles that way and take a right about two miles’ thing and we were driving on this wavy playa.”

“I arrived in the middle of Hellco and it was … just insane. After the end of that and the raves and all the crazy stuff that went down I basically decided to quit my job and become a full time artist regardless of the cost. And I haven’t gone back, that was the last job I had.”

Zach made a conscious decision soon thereafter to leave San Francisco to do what he calls “pursue serious art” and he learned that the Birmingham Museum of Art had a large sculpture area where they were doing heavy duty Industrial Art. While there he created pieces such as Antelumpen and Rockspinners. He eventually moved to Atlanta, into a large warehouse to accommodate his growing collection of thousands of pounds of tools and cranes. I asked him about his solo show, Industrial Jungle in 1997 in the Charles Ireland Sculpture Garden at the Birmingham Museum of Art and how he mentions, even going back to his thesis at Cooper Union, his incorporation of “human powered wing flapping” machines.

“Yes, Burning Man didn’t cause that at all. I went to Burning Man from 96 till 2001 before I actually did a sculpture.”

The Rockspinner?

A Kidney Stone from 2000’s The Body

“Yea, but even before then, in 2000 I just brought out a rock. Not that many people know about that piece. It was 2000 and it was the year of the Body and it was almost a joke. To Lady Bee and Larry Harvey’s credit they listened and I said, ‘Ok if you guys are going to do the Body, I want to do the kidney stone and if you’re going to do it proportionally, the kidney stone has to weigh about twenty thousand pounds’, so I went out to the mountains and got a twenty thousand pound stone and stuck it in there.”

“Then Larry asked, ‘Can you make that spin?’ Because he’d heard about my Rockspinners, and I’d never made anything that heavy spin before, but you know, being a lunatic, I said sure.”

As if just going out and getting a twenty thousand pound rock wasn’t enough…. I mentioned that I look at some of his stuff and I think, how the hell does this work? Colossus was obviously amazing, with the weight and the physics and the people hanging on it.

“The Universe Revolves around YOU, this piece, is kind of an extension on that. I’m trying to take everything I’ve learned from Colossus and the human interactivity, increase the weight but reduce the friction. I’m really trying to,” he pauses then continues, “It was not that long ago that people on an almost daily basis were dealing with really tremendous forces, in the physical world and with their body.”

What do you mean?

Zach paused and saw something in his mind’s eye and continued,

“If you were a farmer in the 40s you knew how to use a lever bar. You knew how to take your 200 pounds of weight and get fifteen to twenty thousand pounds on the tip of a lever through fulcrums and so on. We’ve really lost a lot of  that understanding. It used to be we were more involved and now we just have such tremendous power, hydraulics.. I mean, you touch a button on the elevator and this 50 Horsepower motor will zip you to where you need to go and you won’t even see it and it’s smooth. So you don’t even realize how much force is going on. Not that I regret that, I think it’s fine, but with a lot of my work, I’m trying to put humans in a situation that’s a more akin to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, where people really had a much more visceral understanding of the forces they were dealing with.”

I asked Mr. Coffin where he got his giant stones.

“Two and a half hours outside of Atlanta there’s a small town called Elberton, Georgia, that’s only second to Barre, Vermont in terms of gross tonnage of granite. I discovered it years ago and I’ve always been fascinated with stone. Mostly what they do is tombstones. They have this incredibly uniform granite that is what they want to for tombstones, which is kind of weird. They reject anything that has any character at all. They want it to be like plastic. So there is a whole industry that has built up in Elberton; over 200 rock shops, and you go to this small town and everywhere you turn around there’s a 40 ton bridge giant or  eleven foot rock saws, eleven foot diameter blades just slicing through huge pieces of stone. It’s ridiculous. And everywhere you look there’s a truck driving down the road, a full on semi, with one stone on it, because the stones weigh forty to fifty thousand pounds. That’s all their doing is pulling stone out of the ground and making it into tombstones.”

The Temple of Gravity

Was the Temple of Gravity a grant project?

“Yes, but like most of my projects, the minority of the money was given to me by Burning Man so I raised money through investors. All of my three major pieces for Burning Man have all been the same model. I form a separate corporate and then I ask for investors and part of that is because I really don’t like asking for charity, and also I’m building these really durable objects and I know I’m going to sell them. So I’m giving that opportunity to people to invest.”

Equity stakes are now available, If you are interested in investing, send an email to: universe (at) zacharycoffin (dot) com for more information.

Later in our interview he expanded on his philosophy of raising money for his projects:
“I think that if people invest in this project I will have a much better return than Facebook. Look at my equity offer, I guarantee at least a 20% ROI. Who knows what will happen. But also, what I’m really trying to do, and I’ve talked to Larry a lot about this, is come up with a model that’s almost like a private public partnership where we can continue to push the boundaries of what is possible with Burning Man art without sucking money off of the very limited Burning Man budget.”

“Can we figure out ways to bring in outside money to help make the art happen, and how do we do that so that it’s great for everyone? For people who contribute so that they feel like they aren’t just contributing as a charity case, but that there’s some payoff down the line. People are primarily motivated by self interest, and there is a way to meld these things; their desires, to invest in something they believe in, and also down the line receive a return.”

I found that line of exploration regarding funding art refreshing. Personally, I think it’s good to hear something that’s both positive and realistic because really, the end result is art is funded and everyone benefits from that.

“It’s a leap of faith, but so is buying Facebook, honesty. There’s just more hype with Facebook.”

I told him that personally, I think grabbing onto a huge boulder and having it swing you around in the Keyhole at Burning Man is probably better than spending an afternoon dicking around on Facebook. He replied,

Zach at the Temple of Gravity, photo by Gabe Kirchheimer

“If anything it has more of an impact on you. That’s what I’m really getting involved in, getting down to what we all share as humans because one of the problems I have with some Contemporary Art is that it’s so often very cute and very much, oh aren’t my ideas special?”

“I’m much more interested in what do I have in common with a 65 year old or a five year old and so on and that’s my interest in gravity and inertia because we all share that because we are physical beings. Given that the Industrial Revolution is only 250 years old, I’m taking the tools and all the technology that was developed in the Industrial Revolution and re-purposing that to allow humans to interact with weights and forces much greater than they would normally be able to.”

When people see the massive scope of his work and the heavy machinery involved, I wondered if he had any advice for people thinking on that scale and he said,

“You know, the heavy equipment division is an incredible thing at Burning Man. We have built this super professional team. I’m really interested in pushing the level and ambition of the art at Burning Man partly because we have built such a massive team in the heavy equipment division and I’d like to figure out how to encourage artists to push that envelope. That is, having them know somehow that as long as they aren’t idiots, we can catch them. If they jump we can catch them. And there aren’t that many places that can do that, especially on that kind of budget.”

Burning man is definitely a special place to make art, vast, entirely flat…

“It’s entirely special. And it’s also the amount of good will; the volunteer help you get from Burning Man. You can’t match that anywhere.”

Do you have a team of engineers you work with?

“I have a team of engineers. I’m always looking for engineers. I have, in the last few years, learned CAD and I’m doing almost all the design work myself now and I’ve got engineers who double check my work and I bounce ideas off of them. I’m always looking for engineers to help but the really smart ones always go off and get jobs. Damn, we lost another one.”

At that point Zach said something that is pretty much universally true about our little event.

“Yea so right now I’m kind of flying a little bit blind on this project, but it’s that classic Burning Man thing. It’s such a leap of faith. After you leap, people will show up, and say sure we’ll help you, but it’s not until after you leap that they show up, . I guess Burners are just used to it.”

And what of the Universe Revolves Around YOU?

“I’m really trying to create a situation where a human can play with the equivalent mass of a fully loaded freight car because it’s magical and is really rare in this day and age where you can do that. I mean, you can’t even hop the rails anymore. I’ve had a little fun in rail yards, where if the track is flat, you can pull a rail car because the rolling friction is really low and that’s what I’m trying to do. My hope is that, once you get it going there will be hundreds of people hanging out on it, riding it, and then people will come and try to stop it, (he makes a motion of not stopping it) and oh, like, this is so much heavier than me, this is so much more mass than me.”

Zach has mentioned before of the joy he takes when a big guy approaches his art in motion and decides to try to stop it. The art inevitably says, no, you aren’t stopping me that easily.


“Yep. Stopping it? No you’re not which is a really fun aspect of it. The question for me has always been, how do I do that without hurting people. This is sort of a culmination of my exploration of the human interface. With Colossus I put the weight above head with ropes, and so now I’m thinking I can do this, I can build with a tolerance level so that there’s not any dangerous points where … at least if there’s injuries, they’ll be minor.”

Laughter and hilarity ensued on my part mostly since I’ve been that guy before meeting one of his projects for the first time. You have to know your physics when interacting with physical things on the playa. If you’re top heavy, don’t even attempt Thunderdome.

“I mean, that’s the Burning Man ethos. We don’t want you to die, but we want you to get the opportunity to hurt yourself. Read your ticket.”

Zach had spent much of the day talking with governmental types about his other project, Tidal Time. I’d seen some sketches of it in the Black Rock Arts Foundation room at ArtPadSF, but once I read about what it is he wants to do I was pretty much blown away by the scope and the concept of it. After having talked with him and having a few beers I realized that an idea this immense is pretty much the kind of thing that comes from the mind of a Zachary Coffin.

Inertia and the movement of these massive rocks on the playa is something to behold. Tidal Time is powered by the interaction of the pull of the Moon on the Earth, two planetary masses, and the tides the Moon causes make this particular project work. As the tide comes in, a huge mast moves along and points toward the current. He explained,

Tidal TIme

“Basically you can be anywhere in the Bay Area and with a glance, you can look over and you’ll know how high the tide is and whether it is flooding or ebbing. There is nothing else that will do that other than your phone app and how does looking at your phone connect you to the Bay? With Tidal Time, you can look out into the Bay and see it and you’ll know the tide is going out because the mast is pointing to Golden Gate, if it’s about half way, you know you’re about half way there. Very simple.”

“Part of the reason Tidal Time is so big is because I’ve been observing vessels in the Bay and I really don’t want to build a wave indicator or a swell indicator. I want to build a tidal indicator. And in order to do that, the only vessels that don’t move with the swells are the really, really heavy ones. So if I don’t build it giant, first of all it won’t be visible, and secondly it’ll just be like (he moves his hand like a buoy bobbing and says ‘ning ‘ning’ ning’) all the time like this and if I build a giant it won’t be affected by the swells. Now, on the open ocean it would be, but not in the Bay which is protected water. There’s a different nature to the swells.”

… and  mooring?

“I’ve come up with a mooring solution which kind of like a barge that we drop down to the bottom and fill with sand so it doesn’t have any environmental impact. Everything is designed to be deployed temporarily. It’s also designed to go through the Panama Canal so that we can pull it up, take it with a tugboat through the Panama Canal and install it in the Hudson, New York Harbor, or Rotterdam Harbor, or anywhere wherever there’s a decent tide. Brazil has a four inch tide, so the equatorial countries wouldn’t work. North or South would work. Australia for instance would be a great place to take it. I’d love to build it here, and then take it other places. We’ll see what happens. That will make it easier on a governmental level since it’s only a short install. And I’m trying to design it so it’s no different from anchoring a large ship. And they have large ships anchored out there all the time. “

“For the scale of the project I’ve gotten a lot less naysayers than I’d expect. Part of it is America’s cup, part of it is that the bureaucracy of San Francisco is extraordinarily competent and full of really educated people and I think that part of it is once you get the idea, you’re like, that’s really neat and I’ve gotten that pretty consistently. And also I’ve tapped in through the Burning Man community. The Burning Man community is strong. Once someone from that community calls up and says, ‘Hey talk to this guy, it’s worth it’, they do and there’s no other city in the world I know of that’s like that.”

There’s no other artist I’ve ever met like Mr. Coffin who can move through a conversation about twenty thousand pound stones cut from a tombstone quarry, to his massive turning things and his “culmination of [his] exploration of the human interface” to a nonchalant reference to his giant project powered by the tides that is “no different from anchoring a large ship”.

These are indeed interesting times to be interacting with the art world that tends to gravitate to Burning Man. Look for the Universe Revolves Around YOU in the Keyhole this year in Black Rock City and hopefully soon you’ll be able to know exactly whether the tides are ebbing or flowing in San Francisco Bay by the position of  Tidal Time’s arrow, tall above the water on his giant sculpture in the Bay.

About the author: Moze


John Mosbaugh aka Moze is a SF Bay Area heretic and writer who's been hauling himself out to Black Rock City since the Nebulous Entity first beckoned him to check out this phenomenon known as Burning Man. Moze is a "Life Collector" who scribbles down encounters with you to share on the blog. He enjoys the hyper reality of that week in the desert enough to keep coming back. He's been on the Burning Man web team since aught two and has written for Piss Clear and the YEP (Yahoo Education Project). He doesn't speak for the org and he finds you fascinating. He celebrates you and loves it when you take away ideas from Burning Man and share them with the rest of the world. He likes to make grilled cheese on Burn Night afternoon and gift it to you because you're probably hungry. Moze is a big fan of fire, art, freedom and community.

7 Comments on “The Universe Revolves Around YOU: an interview with Zachary Coffin

  • Julie Kelsey says:

    Such an interesting conversation – project sounds stellar. Can’t wait to see this!!

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  • Roissy says:

    I am glad to see Zachary’s return to the Playa. The Temple of Gravity and Colossus, rate up there as some of my most favorite pieces seen on Playa.
    Tidal Time seems to be a great piece for the masses in the Bay Area who not otherwise see Zachary’s work… Can’t wait to see it…

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  • Sundial says:

    Wow Zach thanks for sharing your insights. Always loved your work. Can’t wait for this year.

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  • epiphany starlight says:

    …but we want you to get the opportunity to hurt yourself… haha
    Thanks Zachary for massive works of art executed with such adroit finesse. You’re on my must see list.

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  • Lee Hill says:

    Hillahead says very interesting. LOVE reading the entire article. Of course I am 1 who did not score tickets this year. Your project sound so remarkable and intesting, would have love to seen it. Keep your wonderful mind creating these over the top ideas.

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  • Ian Hopper says:

    Wow.. Zach does it again! I’ve been a fan of Zach’s work ever since The Temple of Gravity… I’m excited to see Tidal Time come to life in my own backyard!

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