The destruction of art can be an expression of contempt, creativity…or both. So much—if not most—artwork created by and for the Burning Man community is impermanent and predicated on interactivity, its eventual transformation or negation, and rebirth. Creative destruction can liberate and empower. Vandalism however—while it can be politically or creatively motivated, as in tagging—is most often merely a malicious act of nihilism, frustration, or rage.
Vandalism of the most distressing non-creative sort was visited upon the indomitable artist and naturalist Mavis Muller, whose Burning Basket Project has been a feature of the remote, end-of-the world town of Homer, Alaska and elsewhere for several years. The Basket Projects began in Homer in 2004 when Muller gathered a group of spirited people on the beach of Kachemak Bay to create a ten-foot-high large sculpture of an intricately woven basket. Natural materials such as wild grass, nettle, and fireweed, as well as sticks of alder, birch, and spruce were consciously gathered from the local environment. The artwork took six days to create. On day seven, it was presented as a gift to the community and all were invited to interact with it by way of decoration, and by tucking scrolls of written wishes, dreams, hopes, and sentiments into the basket. At sundown, the torch was lit and the basket was burned.
Muller has built a strong community of collaborators with the Basket Projects over the last 12 years not only in her hometown but also in locations around Pacific Rim in Oregon, California, and Hawaii. Burning Man’s Global Art Grants program awarded funding to Muller for the projects in 2006 and again in 2015. Thirty baskets have been built and released and as Muller has written in her message of thanks to her creative communities, “I continue to grow and learn through this art you are a part of…”
Last September somebody in Homer wreaked havoc on the latest project “Reach: A Basket of Remembrance and Unburdening.” This troubled soul tried to destroy the basket on two occasions before the community ceremony, once by shooting flares into it and setting it on fire. A passing bystander extinguished the fire and the basket was repaired. The determined vandal returned the next day with a truck and towline to pull the basket off its base. He dragged it away and flung it into a gully, and sped off into the foggy darkness just a few hours before the final day activities were to begin.
On an early Sunday morning, Muller called the local community radio station, and they made an announcement. The community responded in droves, gathered up the parts and pieces from the roadside and ditches, and managed to re-build the basket in strong wind and rain. Muller said, “REACH became REACH AGAIN. It was epic.”
Luckily, the vandal was caught and prosecuted and pleaded guilty to fifth-degree criminal mischief in a courtroom filled with artists and Muller’s supporters. He was sentenced to eighty hours of community service, put on probation for one year, and ordered to pay restitution.
In a statement to the court, Muller said, “We’re here to communicate that he broke many hearts” and that the vandal “destroyed the most magnificent masterpiece of my career.” Muller has let us know at Burning Man Arts that “I knew healing wouldn’t happen in the courtroom. The whole experience has affected me in a deeper way than people realize. I’m still shell shocked.”
Burning Man’s principle of Radical Self-expression is defined as such: “Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.”
This art was destroyed by someone with intent to cause harm, and it violated the spirit of the piece. While “street” art, guerrilla art, and visual social commentary can surely make for Radical Self-expression, this act of vandalism was not it. But leave it to a Burner artist to make the best of a situation like this: in an olive-branch gesture of healing, Muller offered the vandal the option of doing his community service work by working on the next basket project.