Love Letters From the Living: Tomás Bürkey’s Pyramid of the Dead

By Pamela Stewart

Tomás Bürkey’s Pyramid of the Dead, a 2017 Black Rock City Honorarium project, is a place where love is held in individual nichos (niches) that carry the spirit of Mexico and Día de Muertos to the playa. Tomás describes it as “a celebration of life and death.”

While inspired by Mexican traditions, Tomás’ work is timeless. He says, “I feel like an artist should be like a medicine person — should be someone who brings medicine to the people, who brings understanding and consciousness.”

One World: Many Cultures

Tomás Bürkey

Tomás is a Chilean-American multi-disciplinary artist who has made San Miguel de Allende, Mexico his home for the past 10 years. This place is a cultural hub for artists from around the world. It is where he co-founded La Calaca Festival with Klaudia Oliver.

Born a year after the military coup in Chile to an American father and a Chilean mother, Tomás went to live in Cincinnati, Ohio with his father. Already a promising artist as a child, Tomás later moved to New York City where he started selling his art on the street. People recognized his talent, and he was represented in a number of galleries, including one of the only galleries in Williamsburg at the time.

Tomás spent time in Spain, then came back to his Latin American roots and found his home in San Miguel de Allende. He says his spiritual energy was there. “I needed to be here because this is where I feel like the future of humanity is in many ways.” Tomás met some amazing artists, and together they created the festival La Calaca.

La Calaca is guided by a vision of sharing art and music in a space of inclusion and peace. They have featured artists who are well-known to Burning Man participants, like Spencer Tunick and Andrea Brook. “Pyramid of the Dead kind of brought together all the elements of what we wanted to express as a community and as a festival,” Tomás says. Inspired by the master tin makers of the region, he chose tin as one of his primary materials for the project.

Tomás’ father passed away around the time he started working on Pyramid of the Dead for La Calaca. He put the nicho of his father at the top. He says, “My father was an amazing man, and for me it was so healing and incredible to feel his presence there.”

“Once you stand in front of it,” Tomás says, “you feel the energy because each one of these nichos is intervened by a different person. Behind that, there is a story and there is love and there is sadness at some point, but the way the Mexicans deal with it is they kind of laugh at death or have a party.” Hyper-industrial society hasn’t always been so open to looking at death with this lightness of being, but it is time to learn.

“From the start, we felt that this is a community piece, and everybody is part of the creation of it,” Tomás says. “We want this to be a sacred spot the way that Mexico knows how to do it, and share it with the world.”

Pyramid of the Dead at La Calaca

Celebrating Life and Remembering Our Dead

Pyramid of the Dead is going to come alive in Black Rock City. There will be projection mapping lighting up the night. The crew has an art car, Axolotl which is a Mexican salamander. “He is called the Quetzalcoatl, which is like an indigenous Mexican god — the feathered serpent.” The salamander is an endangered species. “A little bit of what we are doing has do to with ecology as well, and being able to recognize what we are doing to the planet as far as death goes,” Tomás says.

There will also be virtual reality by Roberto Cerda Zuñiga. Participants can enter the pyramid and be taken on a voyage of the Mesoamerican underworld. Zuñiga also highlights the crisis of the coral reef on the border of Mexico, which is dying at a rapid rate.

On Thursday, August 31 at 9 pm, there will be a procession from the Temple to the pyramid, honoring the history of the Temple as a place of spiritual healing. “We will have a Day of the Dead procession where people are going to dress up as Catrinas.” Tomás also shares there will be “DEADtalks”, the ceremony, and a big party with the Mayan Warrior Mutant Vehicle.

Pyramid of the Dead is a community space where some will share stories of their loved ones and others will examine how death affects us. You can take what you need from the work. It could be a memento mori moment or a vanitas still-life, but it is powered by people whose souls are all open to sharing.

Tomás’s spirit is fully realized in the pyramid, and surrounding and embracing him is Design & Communications Director, Lynn Rawden, La Calaca co-founder Klaudia Oliver, Production Director Ben Brill, Build Lead Ali Agus, Digital Production Director Luis Caballero and Video Mapping Artist, Pats Saucedo. And you.

Pyramid of the Dead is running a Hatchfund campaign until August 25. Help spread some healing power as the pyramid makes its way across the border to its home in Black Rock City, where borders don’t exist.

Photos courtesy of Tomás Bürkey

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