Behind the Scenes with the Mazu Temple Builders

Sarah Kihls fabricates a steel dragon, one of several that will perch on Mazu's roofline.
Sarah Kihls fabricates a steel dragon, one of eight that will perch on Mazu’s roofline.

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.

Charlie Nguyen paints the roof outside The Generator in Reno, Mazu's US build site.
Charlie Nguyen paints the roof outside The Generator in Reno, Mazu’s US build site.
John Julius Little assembles the 108 lanterns, provided by Texas artists Dave and Marrilee Archer, to light the temple perimeter.
John Julius Little assembles the 108 lanterns, provided by Texas artists Dave and Marrilee Archer, to light the temple perimeter.
Nathan Parker, project manager.
Nathan Parker, project manager.

“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.

Designer and artist Eric Peralta with one of his steel dragons
Designer and artist Eric Peralta with one of his steel dragons
A single petal of the lotus flower that will crown the temple
Australian Matt Bray welds on one of the 24 massive petals for the lotus flower that will crown the temple
Edward “Shinobi” White (right) leads a team in hand-painting Mazu’s woodwork, with assistance from Bowen Chou, an artist and event producer from Taiwan.
Edward “Shinobi” White (right) leads a team in hand-painting Mazu’s woodwork, with assistance from Bowen Chou, an artist and event producer from Taiwan.

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.

Tristan Rezlaff, resident poet, has written sixty poems in response to your innermost questions.
Tristan Bennett, resident poet, has written sixty original poems in response to your innermost questions.
Chelsea Barrie, Pyrotechnics Lead, creates flame effects. You like fire, right?
Chelsea Barrie, Pyrotechnics Lead, creates flame effects. You like fire, right?
After painting 24 lotus petals, Rosie Wendel only dreams in pink and white.
After painting 24 lotus petals, Rosie Wendel only dreams in pink and white.
"Who are you?" "I am power tool safety man."
“Who are you?” “I am power tool safety man.”
Kiwi, the architect of the Temple of Transition in 2011, and Claudio Chen from Taiwan, debating some simple math
Chris “Kiwi” Hankins, the architect of the Temple of Transition in 2011, and Claudio Chen from Taiwan, debating some simple math
Carina and Chuck, setting up the metal shop for another 20 hour day of burning steel.
Carina and Chuck, setting up the metal shop for another 20 hour day of burning steel.

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.”

DPA-logoThe 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.

Do you believe? Are you looking forward to visiting Mazu this year? Help the crew raise the final $10k, sign up to work the burn perimeter, or send a few words of encouragement via Facebook.

Mazu Temple rendering by Neko Gray.
Mazu Temple rendering by Neko Gray.

About the author: The Hun

The Hun, also known as J.H. Fearless, has been blogging for Burning Man (and many other outlets) since 2005, which is also the year she joined the BRC DPW on a whim that turned out to be a ten-year commitment. Since then she's won some awards for blogging, built her own creative business, and produced some of the Burning Blog's most popular stories and series. She co-created a grant-funded art piece, "Refoliation," in 2007, and stood next to it watching the Man burn on Monday night during a full lunar eclipse. She considers that, in many ways, to have been the symbolic end of Burning Man that was. The Hun lives in Reno with DPW Shade King, Quiet Earp. You may address her as "The Hun" or "Hun". If you call her "Honey" she reserves the right to cut you.

8 Comments on “Behind the Scenes with the Mazu Temple Builders

  • jeffz says:

    If the DPA ever needs a mosaic artist, let me know! Love this and what you are doing, can’t wait to see the project in BRC!

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  • Dr. Bungee says:

    Ho-ray for art. Three cheers for creative hard working people building an awesome gift for Black Rock City.

    How come there are almost no comments about this, yet the PnP blog has almost 100, and the EDM one has over 150? Isn’t this (the above) what BM is REALLY about?

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  • Whoa …

    I’m reluctant to donate to any of the art crowdfunding because there are so many, but this one … this one with its real world applications and multi-layer phenomenalness is beyond worthy.

    When people ask what draws me to Burning Man, projects like this come to mind first.

    Thanks for helping restore some hope in humanity and a bright little spot on this otherwise doomed, pale blue dot.

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  • nikopeachZ says:

    Fine
    Recognition of
    Exemplary
    Efforts.

    Beatific and
    Inspiring
    Revelations,
    Dude.

    Nice work Temple Builders. Keep building the dream. Thanks, Hun.

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  • Renrhaf says:

    I’m waiting for this ! It seems so beautiful !

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  • Harold says:

    I can’t wait to see the pictures you post on this. As my daughter would say, It’s a Gi-nor-mas project.

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  • CosmicGoddess says:

    Ooooo this made me shiver. How beautiful. Thank you! I will enjoy this.

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  • The temple fair of the Goddess Mazu opens at Tianfei Temple at the Yuejiang Tower scenic spot in Nanjing, capital of East China’s Jiangsu province, May 11, 2015. This marks the 1,055 birthday of Mazu, the Chinese indigenous goddess of the sea who protects fishermen and sailors, and many people participate in the worship ceremony.

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