For nearly a full year now, an international crew of artists, craftspeople, designers, builders, engineers (and at least one poet) have been working nonstop to create a temple for Mazu, Goddess of the Empty Sea — a piece you’ll soon be able to experience and interact with on playa. What’s more, they’ve turned this project into a new arts collective that could keep them working on similar projects for years to come.
Photographer Aleksey Bochkovsky has documented many a workday with this crew. Here’s a look at what they’re doing, and more about what makes Mazu’s temple, and its crew, unique. All photos by Aleksey.
“We’re raising the bar for craftsmanship, detail and interactivity,” says project leader Nathan Parker, who previously worked for several years as an electrician for the Black Rock City Department of Public Works.
“Most of the art that people create to be burned has a temporary feel,” he continues.
“We want this to feel real and permanent. We want people to say, ‘Why are you going to burn that? Don’t burn that!’”
But it will burn. The Mazu temple’s laser-cut panels; its hand-painted, sanded, stained woodwork; its arching 40-foot-high lotus flower will all go away. In the process, they’ll reveal the underlying steel structure: a self-standing sculpture that will one day be installed permanently in a public space.
An international, interactive scope
The Mazu project, which is currently fundraising $10,000 to cover final costs, was primarily funded by an arts organization in Taiwan called “The Dream Community.” Work began in Taipei last winter to bring the goddess Mazu — a widely worshiped figure throughout Asia — to the dry bed of Lake Lahontan for Burning Man 2015. BRC’s Mazu Temple will combine authentic touches from Asia’s traditional temples, with modern interactive features (by which I mean: fire).
“If you go to a Mazu temple anywhere in Asia, you’ll see a bowl of crescent shaped blocks, with one rounded side and one flat side,” Nathan says.
“You hold them in your hand, ask a yes/no question, and let them drop. How they land will answer your question. You’ll find these blocks in our temple too, but they will be fitted with accelerometers and bluetooth transmitters, so using them will trigger the effects.”
If your question is deeper than a simple yes or no, you can instead pull a bamboo strip from a bundle of sixty, and find coordinates which will lead you to a poem, and then a location in Black Rock City, to find your answer. This ritual is based on the Qiu Qian, a traditional method of receiving the gods’ answers to your queries.
The temple is designed to be experienced on every level. The crew includes two builders of last year’s UFO, as well as Kiwi, lead architect of 2011’s Temple of Transition. It includes experienced craftspeople and creators with years of Burning Man art on their resumes. All have dedicated their craftsmanship to a structure that will carry meaning — and hours of handwork — in every square foot.
This month’s fundraiser will provide additional tools so the crew can finish all the detail work planned; so they can add a special surprise interactive feature (which I won’t detail here, but which will be pretty incredible if they pull it off); and so the individuals who’ve dedicated the past 6-10 months to this project won’t leave quite as broke, homeless and unemployed as they are today.
Building a future for artists
It’s a truth of Burning Man art projects (of most big projects, in fact) that the creators often end up spending their own money, all their time, and quite a few pieces of their sanity on their work, and leaving with little to show for it aside from a sense of fulfillment.
Nathan and his crew, many of whom have worked for years in the BRC Department of Public Works, want to change that. They’re forming the Department of Public Arts (DPA), an independent collective for big art builders.
“It’s something for DPW, big art veterans and super capable craftsmen to graduate into,” Nathan explains.
“A way to find work around the world doing something we’re passionate about, that will pay us at least something like what we’re worth.”
The DPA already has contracts and project leads for 2016, spanning Asia, Europe and Africa. And there’s one more possibility to consider, Nathan explains:
“The people with the temperament, the skill set and the availability to hop on a plane and go somewhere to make big amazing interactive art, are also the people who can hop on a plane and go somewhere that’s just been hit by a massive disaster, and make a difference.”
Really? Yes. In fact, a lot of the infrastructure is the same, or can be shared. The crew has already designed portable metal fabrication shops, among other things, that can be dropped anywhere, along with skilled craftspeople, to build whatever is needed — be it a giant flame-breathing sculpture, or a disaster shelter.