The Burner in Her Labyrinth

The Man is at the heart of Burning Man, and he is surrounded by the Midway. If you wish to reach him, you must walk down the stalls of games and tawdry prizes, past the sweatshop making low-end electronics, and avoid the museums of curiosities. You must not linger by the stages.

Then you must enter the maze of mirrors.

You will be surprised, at first, by just how few mirrors there are. The walls are a reddish orange, a funhouse color, and only a few walls, here and there, have mirrors. As you enter the first set of turns and decide which direction to go next, a man with a staff bracelet shouts “Dim your lights! Dim your lights!” before walking away.

About half the people around you do. The other half shrug. “He’s just fucking with us,” someone behind you says.

The maze around the Man is large. You wonder as you turn right, then left, then follow somebody who swears he knows where he’s going, just how long this can go on. But perhaps the man in front of you did know where he was going because you walk through another door and suddenly are in open air.

This place is gorgeous. For a moment you wonder if you’ve somehow walked into the Temple. But no, there’s the Man, looming directly above you. But below him, at your level, is a crystalline sculpture, glittering and glistening in the light. It looks like piles of stones carefully stacked on top of each other, and is surrounded in turn by small piles of actual stones stacked on top of each other.

You’re not the first person to think that this might be the temple: the room is gradually filling up with the kind of messages that you’d find there.

There are curved mirrors on two of the walls, their surfaces divided up into dozens of squares. There are display screens on the other walls, showing pictures of people you don’t know. There is a balcony level above you – you’re not sure how to get to that yet – full of people watching you.

Someone on the top level has a bullhorn, and shouts his congratulations down to the people at your level. Someone shouts back up that they need to know how to reach the balcony. He shouts back down that he can’t do that, you have to figure this stuff out for yourself. But he does explain that the curved mirrors are really cameras: if you and your friends stand in front of them, your images will be taken and the pictures displayed on the wall-mounted screens.

So that’s who these people are: they’re you.

You wonder if the guy with the bullhorn is actually an artist or a member of Burning Man’s staff, or just some asshole with a bullhorn. Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to tell. Frankly you kind of like that.

You walk around the central sculpture, taking it all in. You get your picture taken. Several times. And then you decide to go looking for the stairs to the upper level. It turns out that’s easy: you just need to pick the right door to exit through, and they’re right there.

You walk up and take in the view: you have to decide whether to take in the whole city, or to look back down at the people below you, and the area you’ve just come from. You decide to look back down: the people watching is great.

Amazing things happen on that deck. You see incredible costumes, you notice more details about the sculpture below you and the Man above you. A friend of yours breaks into an animal impression and suddenly has a new playa name. She loves it. She starts planning costumes around it: just like that her life is changed.

Eventually you turn to look at the city, and that’s when you notice something new: down below you, in the maze you came through, there are art exhibits that you never saw. A strange musical interface attached to floating styrofoam heads; an organ with streams of sheet music pouring out of its top …

You realize that maybe you got to the Man too fast. That there’s so much more to see in the maze – if you can find it. One of your friends wants to go back down right now and search: another ways to leave the maze and the Midway and head for the deep playa, he’s heard that the art out there is especially good this year. Another friend just wants to stay here a while, taking it all in.

So many possibilities. Eventually you’re going to have to find your way out.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

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