Liberty’s Flame and Feeding the Commodification Snake Its Own Tail

By Matthew “Timeless” Welter

In 2017, a tiny crew and I are preparing our installation, “Promethean Passion”, for Burning Man’s Radical Ritual. Not only is this piece the latest in the (R)evolution of an art series, but it is also the expression of an ancient cause with antecedents deep in our collective history.

Ever since Prometheus stole fire from Zeus to place humanity on equal footing with the gods, the flame of Liberty has burned through millennia, right down to Lady Liberty’s torch.

But this is more than a story of this year’s artwork. This is the story of wooden monuments that burn backwards, and sculptures to further a revolution that has been waged for thousands of years. It’s about a new art form whose very process is ritual, producing sculptures that go beyond art. And this is the story of funding to drive a global renaissance.

Early Years

Through my teens I served an apprenticeship at a studio called The Sawdust Gallery. That’s when I began having visions that vex me still. I saw towering monuments attended by throngs — and I saw more. Those monuments were creating wealth! The sculptures were storing both value and power, and they were becoming somehow more than art.

One day two hippie girls visited our enclave and excitedly announced an artist gathering. “All freaks!” they sang out proudly. “Somewhere over the Sierra Nevadas — Black something.”

“Someday,” I thought, “I’d go see the freaks, but not now. I had monuments to carve. Maybe they really could do more than art.”

Since that awakening, I’ve been obsessed with carving the biggest wooden monuments I can manage. For decades, I have practiced my skills by filling commissions for large works that are mostly driven by clients dictates, and enjoyed by them and their friends.

But I knew my monuments could be more! I had seen it. Push came to shove for me on September 11, 2001, though I did not yet know the extreme antiquity of my new cause — Liberty.

Liberty on Playa

In 2007, I spent months mounting my first installation for Burning Man: a, 10-foot futuristic Statue of Liberty that was still in progress and called “Nexus”. She was encircled by five smaller but still massive wooden sculptures,Guardians of Liberty. The Burn’s theme that year was Green Man.

Nexis by Timeless (Photo by Burning Max)

I carved all week but before the event’s end, someone got too excited with a match. By morning, a fire had turned my chainsaws, power tools, scaffolding and trailer all to charr. But the lady remained, now a beautifully textured if unwelcome collaboration.

The following night, I sat alongside her, wondering about my livelihood through the waning moments of the great Temple burn when a man emerged from the grey night with hugs and a gritty bottle of cheap wine. Art-lover and Burner, his name was Paul Rolke.

The failed ceremonial retirement burn of Anarchy (Photo courtesy of Timeless)

To my surprise, Paul said he’d been having ideas about investing in a monument, one to inspire communities as it gained value.

For American Dream in 2008, I returned with another Liberty-esque sculpture, “Hand of Order”, also still in progress. Paul had commissioned the remake for $100k, only this time she was 30-feet tall! Alongside her stood the charred remains of my first attempt, now re-titled “Reign of Anarchy”. She stood awaiting a retirement burn, now on a massive stump pedestal. The pair were attended by their “Guardians of Liberty”.

I carved the big girl with chainsaws while participants saturated the smaller one with oil. First to follow The Man burn, I lit the match and started the strange ritual amid fire dancers twirling. Glorious flames initially engulfed the lady, but despite all attempts the flames began to sputter and then went out. But the fire did creep into her stump pedestal’s cracks, creating a fire inside the wood as we slept, almost completely consuming the stump by morning!

What I did not know was that the playa had gifted me a way to imbue my monuments with a spark to make them more than art.

When “Hand of Order” was appraised that same year at $300k, the strange vision of my youth came back to me of the monuments that accumulate meaning, energy and wealth. Long days and nights of research, and talks with appraisers, investment advisors and art marketers produced a plan: an investment free of regulation, taxes and maintenance that fortifies communities. It already existed, I just had to reveal it.

Fire Inside

Fire Inside by Timeless (Photo by Timeless)

In 2009, the Burning Man theme was Evolution and my art procession gained a title: “Liberty (R)evolution”. As the growing collection of monuments moved through communities, my friends and I began practicing burning wooden log sculptures the same way I’d seen the stump of “Nexus” burn, and soon we were calling the process Fire Inside.

(Photo by Andrew Wyatt)

Not your grandmother’s burn. This was slow and powerful, sometimes raging all night, allowing time to contemplate and close proximity to participate. Soon participants were driving and suppressing the flames with breath or water through copper tubes, at my direction. Over time, we began to extinguish the fires before they collapsed; the incredible textures would later receive a hardening, weatherable finish.

Early-on, the strange burns seemed to cast a curious spell that pulled us deep into ourselves, still somehow leaving us more open to one another. This new art form was becoming a ritual on its own — more like the Temple burn than that of the Man — and producing a charged and valuable artifact.

In 2013, Cargo Cult again plunged me into study. I learned that the earliest reference to Liberty came from the mother culture, Sumeria, 2,300 B.C. and that it stood at the culture’s political and philosophical core.

 

And so, a 10-foot Sphinx and one Easter Island Moai stood back to back on the playa, awaiting their own Fire Inside. Half way between the two tellers of antiquity was a large, carved fire-hollowed “Liberty Bell”. Fires raged inside the larger two, and three more playa artifacts joined the wandering “Liberty (R)evolution”.

In 2015, “Hand of Order” returned to the playa, along with one very special “Guardian of Liberty” called “Unification Theory”. Both were consecrated in the glorious Fire Inside ritual.

Breaking the Drought

That same year, Hand of Order” was summoned to a Pray for Snow Burn at a Tahoe beach retreat. I researched, blogged and consulted about the ritualistic aspects, even consulting Native American elders and other knowledgeable Burners. My intent was to end a 12-year drought then gripping the west coast.

Hand of Order by Timeless (Photo by Ranger Ric)

So it happened, on Friday the 13th of November, we began a two-night Fire Inside ritual by re-igniting “Hand of Order”.

On the morning of November 15, snow had blanketed the beach and sculptures! That storm marked the end of a 12-year drought, ushering in two of the wettest years on record for the entire west coast, as dams and rivers strained. Jus say’n…

In 2016, da Vinci’s Workshop, there was a blog series in the Burning Man Journal, “Art, Money and the Renaissance”, which cited the Italian Renaissance as funded entirely by private money.

Synchronistically, my investment model now had a name, Fundiversify and one of the first to ever take notice this was Larry Harvey, who said  “it would create more of the world we want to see”. Then Caveat Magister published an article highlighting Fundiversify, and after that a lot of qualified minds offered glowing words about privately owned, publicly shared art that accrues even as it charges communities.

Radical Ritual

In 2017, Promethean Passion picks up the ancient thread of liberty again by using Fire Inside, the art form rooted in epic celebration of freedom, which is now a poignant device to distinguish this (R)evolution made of art.

A huge, carved flame will be installed at 11:15 and the Temple perimeter. It will be consecrated by Fire Inside and the breath of Burners will infuse the wood with our collective spirit.

This ritual has evolved as a way to create what I now know is a talisman, an amulet, a power object, only this time the spell will help drive a new renaissance that has already begun, and become a new relic of a truly timeless cause.

Or not.

Our installations have all been self-funded, so this year we are seeking one or a few new investors to help prove Fundiversify viable at auction.

We need equipment and expenses to carry our growing collection of traveling monuments to the playa and far beyond, to deliver something even more powerful than art — Burning values that can never be sold. After all, Fundiversify was created to feed the commodification snake its very own tail.

(Photo by Timeless)

Top Photo: Timeless in a ritual moment, for Hand of Order (Photo by Andrew Jesus Wyatt)

About the author: Matthew “Timeless” Welter

Matthew “Timeless” Welter

Matthew “Timeless” Welter is a professional High Sierra sculptor of some 45 years, now playa sculptor of 10. He has developed a new art form to mark a traveling collection of monuments. Timeless divides his time between his apprentices, carving monuments with chainsaws and holes in them with fire. To  see the collection, learn more, or to contact Timeless visit FireInsideArt.com

5 Comments on “Liberty’s Flame and Feeding the Commodification Snake Its Own Tail

  • JV says:

    Very interesting read, thanks. I remember those first two pieces. Love that it’s just an artist doing art and exploring the different ways that art can be applied/appreciated/interpreted. ART! Not “spreading burner culture” and fundraising, which is pretty much what Burning Man as practiced by the BMORG is all about these days.

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  • roissy says:

    Thank you for helping to end the drought…

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  • Burning Dan says:

    I saw your liberty piece in ’07, before and after your whole scene got vandalized. I met you there, you were extremely devastated at your loss, not knowing how you would dig your way out… no trailer or tools and a big mess… seems you have, spectacularly! Awesome phoenix story! And an awesome charmed prophesy to boot.

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  • Stina says:

    It’s incredible what happy accidents happen in our lives . You took something that would upset many (the loss of your tools) and still managed to see this new potential. With art, we cannot always choose when or what will inspire us. Thank you for allowing inspiration to find you so that you can share these pieces with us.

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  • Brett Rivera says:

    Really hope to have the opportunity to see some of these up close this year. That story about the 12 year drought was amazing! I can’t imagine what it’s like to create something so magnificent and the set it on fire from the inside. He creates it and destroys it, but through it’s destruction a deeper beauty is found. Forged in Fire and Freed through Flame. Thanks for your service and artistic contribution!

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