It is said that the true measure of an artist can’t be surmised in total until after their death, and I consider Larry Harvey an artist in every right, arguably one of the greatest of his generation — albeit one that worked in a less than obvious medium.
Most artists leave behind some tangible, material body of work — sculptures, paintings, recorded music — an enduring legacy to be consumed and debated by critics (qualified and otherwise) for the remaining future. For all intents and purposes, Larry, and the movement he inspired, left behind nothing of the sort.
Virtually any traditionally recognizable works of art associated with him were burnt to ashes only hours or days after their completion. Their destruction was as much, if not more, a part of their identity as their very creation.
Possibly the most revolutionary idea at the core of Larry’s artistic legacy was the decoupling of value from the finished piece of art as a material thing, and the elevation of the shared experience of making and then publicly destroying the piece as the work of art itself.
The sculpture of the Man is little more than a carrier wave, an excuse. It is an exercise in all the meanings of the otherwise trite saying, “You had to be there!”. Leaving No Trace has a meaning beyond simply the notion of cleaning up after ourselves; it is the victory of the intangible concepts of experience and immediacy as an artistic medium.
In fact, the entire event, which sprang up around Larry’s nebulous, wooden totem of a faceless man, remains an exercise in futile impermanence. Almost more effort is put towards the removal of any trace of its existence than is applied to its creation.
An entire city — with all its noise and bustle and teeming humanity, its monumental works of art, humans being and humans doing — is only in full flower for a week, and then is quickly and anonymously whisked away, an analog for life itself. It’s a temporary, albeit noisy blip that gives way to the great nothingness in a relative blink of an eye, barely an interruption geologically speaking.
The genius of Larry’s art wasn’t in what he did; it was in what he didn’t do. It some ways it is the Art of Nothingness. The contemplation of the empty page or blank canvas. The silence that challenges you to interrupt it if you think you have something good to say. The reason the Black Rock Desert is so fundamental to Burning Man as an artistic exercise is due to its perfect nothingness: a sterile expanse with virtually no signal or noise. Larry sublimely shifted this vacuum into the very idea of Burning Man, which in its rawest form is an empty space that you have to pour your own meaning into.
In Larry’s paradigm, the Burning Man effigy could be whatever you thought it was: a false idol, a real idol, your own version of a Christmas tree or just a cardinal point in your made-up, temporary home town.
The event itself was just nebulous enough for you to assign as much meaning or insignificance as you wanted to it. And you could coalesce around that meaning with others that saw it the same way as you, side by side with other people who saw it completely differently. All of you were free to actively redefine reality together and to have that reality challenged by the Old Testament-style wrath of a merciless desert.
Which, as it turns out, is a great way to meet people. People that are possibly going to be your best friends for life.
Larry was once pressed with the question of whether or not Burning Man was a cult, to which his response was: “It’s a self-service cult. You have to wash your own brain.”
And therein lies the Real Art of Burning Man. It is out of reverent respect for the nothingness that we choose to only fill it for a fleeting moment in time, its value heightened by its temporary nature and sanctified by the select few we choose to share it with.
Much like life itself.
Top photo: Larry and Crimson Rose, 1998 (Photo by Stewart Harvey)