Zac, Big Art, the New Pavilion, and Other Stories

If you look at it a certain way, you could say that Zac Coffin is the person responsible for the creation of the Heavy Equipment and Transpo (HEaT) team of the Department of Public Works (DPW) at Burning Man.

Zac is an artist and a heavy equipment operator, and his piece Temple of Gravity will be on the playa this year for the first time since 2003.

And it was this very piece that set in motion the events that led Burning Man to create its own heavy equipment operation.

The Temple of Gravity “was heavier than anything Burning Man ever did before,” Zac was saying as he watched the piece being installed out near the trash fence yesterday. So he hired a crane operator “out of the phone book,” and that operator turned out to be Big Stick. Big Stick saw that there was a need for heavy equipment on the playa, and although it took him a couple of years to persuade the org to set one up, he eventually prevailed.

And here we are today, with Zac as one of the equipment operators in that same HEaT department, and his Temple is back at Burning Man. Full circle.

Zac has brought four pieces to the playa, or five if you count the big rock that he brought out in 2000. That year’s theme was the body, so Zac mined a big chunk from the nearby Granite range and called it the Kidney Stone. Larry Harvey his own self liked it and asked Zac if he could make a big stone piece that would spin. And of course he could. “[Larry] knew I was doing spinning rocks on a public art level.”

So the next year it was, fittingly enough, the Rockspinner, basically a slab on bearings, which you could spin around and sit underneath, if you wanted to. After that came the Temple of Gravity in 2003, and Colossus in 2005.

The granite slabs used in the Temple of Gravity are the same kind of granite that is used to make tombstones. Coffin and tombstones, how about that? And it comes from Elberton, Georgia, one of the two big tombstone suppliers in the United States.

The Temple of Gravity is sixty feet across, with five thick steel supports that hold 15,000-pound slabs you can climb on or sit under. There will also be a burn barrel in the middle, and “it’s going to be a real party out here.”

It will be a long way out, past the Temple, just this side of the trash fence. “I wanted to make it a pilgrimage to get here,” Coffin says.

Zac’s been on his own big-art pilgrimage pretty much ever since his college days at Cooper Union. “It was a fancy arts school, and they were all snooty and snotty, and they were in the middle of the whole, ‘Where is the art world now?’ thing,” Zac says, a debate that we can confidently say continues to this day.”

“I was doing big-scale work right out of college. … I wanted to go outside and unsupervised, I wanted to do art that people didn’t have to go to a museum or some fancy gallery to see. They would encounter it outside.”

What you encounter is gigantic in scale, but has simplicity and elegance at its core. There are grooves on the granite slabs that you might initially think are decorative, but Zac quickly corrects you: “I don’t do decorative.” The grooves are where the dynamite was placed when the granite was quarried.

“I went to the guy who owned the quarry, and I told him he couldn’t do it. And he was a good Georgia redneck, and he wasn’t going to quit. He thought it would be easy, and it turned out to be really, really hard. … It didn’t matter, it became a matter of pride.”

Zac works out of the American Steel studios in West Oakland, and even though there’s been a change of ownership, he’s staying put. “They’ve got a 10-ton bridge crane,” he says, and that’s a pretty good resource. They’re also installing one of his pieces. “I’ve been thrown out of spaces all over the country, so I don’t get emotional” about the upset that often comes with new owners.

Zac’s one of the big-art pioneers at Burning Man, and a pilgrimage to his Temple of Gravity is going to be worth the trip.

There’s a newly revamped structure going up on the Esplanade that aims to do two things: help artists get squared away on the playa, and highlight Burner efforts around the globe. Maybe the only thing it needs now is a name that rolls off the tongue a little more smoothly than “the ARTery and Everywhere Pavilion.”

But in a lot of ways the Pavilion is emblematic of the continuing effort to make life easier for artists here, even though it is a fact that life will never be easy for Burning Man artists, because it’s damn hard to make art in this environment.

It’s still worth trying, though.

Not too long ago, the Artery was a very small operation, and it basically told artists where they should install their piece. Now there are about 60 volunteers who get assigned to artists once their projects are approved, and they’re with them the whole way. No need to deal with someone you have never spoken to before, just when the going gets the toughest.

That’s the ARTery side of the building.

TPR and the trusses

The other purpose of the space is to highlight the efforts to spread Burning Man culture far and wide, with civic engagement and operations like Burners Without Burners and Black Rock Solar and the regional networks. But those folks are mostly out doing their thing in the world, and the artists are the ones who need the most care and feeding here.

Puppy Stomper is the ops manager for the Pavilion (which he says sounds a lot more glorious than it is – “Basically, I’m the janitor.” And he’s got a looming deadline: “We’ll be fully operational by the time of Early Man,” he said, speaking of the mini departmental Burning Man that happens this Saturday night. TPR is the build lead, and the Pavilion now has a dedicated DPW crew, much like Artica for ice, Oculus for the Center Café, and the First Camp crew.

TPR and Le Wrench came up with the new design, which features new trusses that are not only better looking, but also more stable. There’s green shade where there used to be white shade, too, so the whole area should be a lot cooler in the sun.

Puppy Stomper gets a consultation.

It will serve “a whole lot of people, and a whole lot of people with radically differing needs,” Puppy says. “One is everything outside, and when Arts and Civic Engagement became a thing, it kind of formalized how they all work together. … It’s art … and all things we do in the outside world because of people who like the art.”

Jeremy Crandell is the co-lead of the central arts team, and he’s excited about the possibilities for the space, as well. “We wanted to bring [Everywhere] and the ARTery together and say, hey, we’re doing stuff globally, so lets’s talk about that stuff and have an engaged single presence that shows that.”


It’s weird out here. (Understatement.) When you see someone you might say, “How’re you doing?” And wayyyy more often than not you’ll hear “Fantastic!” or “Amazing!” or “Living the Dream!” which is said without irony (most of the time). Of course that puzzles us. This morning, when Facit told us how great the day was, we said, “Everybody always says that!” And we shared that we were, you know, doing ok. “Just ok??” she said. And she put everything down and came in for a hug. A big one. And dammit if that didn’t make the day better right there (sorry Jim Graham).

Facit, the happy hugger

Stinger has finally showed up in Black Rock City. You might remember her as one of the people who really had a rough time when the bugs were here for a few days a couple of years ago. “I was waiting for the bugs to leave,” she said of her relatively late arrival this year. … She needn’t have waited. … What we didn’t know about Stinger until this morning was how she got her nickname. Turns out she is highly allergic to just about any kind of bug bite, and on her first day one year, a bee stung her and her face got all swollen. So of course she’s been called Stinger ever since. …


We got a patch from Adam in the bike shop that says, “Dark Wad.” It glows in the dark. … (Dear newbies: you need lights on your person at night. Don’t be a dark wad.) … If you’re at a construction site and you don’t have a hard hat, the Fluffers can loan you one. … When the last spire is put in the ground (sometime next week), there’s usually an impromptu gathering to mark the occasion. Blackthorn said “the party has gotten out of control, just like what happened to Larry Harvey.” There will be tighter controls this year, apparently. … Sweet Ride and Bless Your Heart staged a bit of guerilla theater at the morning meeting, reminding people about cleanup after Early Man. “The community comes together to clean the next morning,” Bless Your Heart said. “And by ‘community,’ asked Sweet, “you mean D.A.?” Um, no. It means everyone. … The motor shop reminded everyone to “Keep it tight, check your fluids, and come for blowjobs.” We guess you didn’t hear that in your morning meeting.

The HEaT team brought a crane to lift the deck onto the Ghetto bar, and it was a hard-hat job. Juicy Jake painted his a kingly gold for the occasion. … Propaniac is not only the man in charge of propane on the playa, but he plays a big role in establishing Nevada state governmental regulations, as well. Good man to have on your team. … As Crandell says, “It’s not a bunch of dorks running propane through garden hoses.” … The fire teams keep people on the right side of the law, and keep people safe, too. …

Here are some more pics:

Juicy Jake and his gold hat


Zac and the Temple of Gravity



Maeia is one reason you’re always happy to get help from HEaT …


… And Andy is another


Zac checking the chains


Just a normal Black Rock vehicle. Lots of good reading.


Why are you wearing a princess tiara, Frisky Whiskey? “Because I work for the Queen.”


Jeremy and Puppy Stomper



About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

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