The Art of Nothing: The Aesthetic Legacy of Larry Harvey

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)

About the author: Buck AE Down

Buck AE Down

Among other things, Buck AE Down is the Central Services Assistant Manager of the Black Rock City Gate, Perimeter and Exodus Department. He designed the Burning Man event ticket in 2008 and 2014, as well as the official event poster in 2016. He was a founding member of the Mutaytor and the Gentlemen Callers of Los Angeles, and was once the Mayor of Gigsville, along with scores of other odd jobs around Black Rock City for the better part of the last 20 years. He is a regular contributor to the BRC Weekly and Piss Clear. He lives in Pasadena, California with his wife, kid and two passive aggressive cats.

14 Comments on “The Art of Nothing: The Aesthetic Legacy of Larry Harvey

  • Mestre A. says:

    All well and good.

    But I think BurningMan – and Harvey – lost their way many years ago. “Art”, and the 10 Principles, became subservient to the corporate management company that BurningMan hired some ? 8+ years ago. That financial-management company advised them to throw overboard entities that had created incredible value for the burners – examples include: REMSA, which created the entire structure of advanced medical care on-playa (Rampart). And many other functions were changed to reflect the profit-motive. BurningMan then became more than a money-engine than ever.

    During the approx. early-2010s period, they licensed pervert photographers and videographers to physically hide behind art and structures, and, using extreme telephoto lenses, photograph burner woman who were topless. (I saw them, with their baseball caps on backwards, and their huge BurningMan-approved photo-IDs hanging from lanyards on their chests.) These images were shopped all over the world, as was a panoply of video promotions of BurningMan. Borg did everything to expand the corporate model, and create demand when none existed previously (disastrous ticket lotteries, anyone? In my earlier years, you could walk into several funky outlets on Haight St. in S.F., and just buy your ticket over the counter, any time in the weeks-months before the event). Borg created the VIP Services department, and VIP access and privilege, as hundreds of habitats were brought in on 18-wheel trailers, fully stocked with elite liquor and food. “Turn-key” and “executive” camps, and luxury $500,000 RV “entrepreneurs”, took this to the Nth degree. VIPs are shuttled from their Pilatus PC12 turboprop luxury aircraft, by golf cart, to their luxury villas and RVs, replete with “sherpas” and maids (not exaggerating!!). The previous small-scale art installations (individuals and small groups, small installations) were replaced by pieces that cost $100,000, or way more, funded by V.C. clones. Same with the new art cars – as much as $500,000 per vehicle.

    How about “the themes” for each year? From organic themes like “the Oceans”, we have progressed to “Cargo Cult”. A measure of the remarkable ignorance and lack of education of the Founders is the extraordinary misconception of the meaning of “cargo cult”. Here you have an “organization” (Borg) which serves up the façade of “decommodification”… yet, “cargo cults” were the ultimate manifestation of commodification, when during WW2 the U.S. military flew in massive amount of “cargo” to the previously indigenous Pacific Islands. “Cargo” became magical goods, media of trade, effective money, and objects of worship from the peoples of those islands. What was the iconic “cargo”, then? SPAM. Not computer spam, REAL Spam, the canned stuff. Spam, and hundreds of other mass-produced, extremely cheap, profoundly-commodified products (soap, tissue, toiletries, kitchen-ware, light bulbs, generators, ad nauseum). These imports drastically changed cultural and economic influences in the islands, during and after the war. Many South Pacific Island cults, based on “cargo”, were analyzed after WW2:

    (A brief snippet from Wiki: “After World War II anthropologists discovered that an unusual religion had developed among the islanders of the South Pacific. It was oriented around the concept of cargo which the islanders perceived as the source of the wealth and power of the Europeans and Americans. This religion, known as the Cargo Cult, held that if the proper ceremonies were performed shipments of riches would be sent from some heavenly place. It was all very logical to the islanders. The islanders saw that they worked hard, but were poor, whereas the Europeans and Americans did not work but instead wrote things down on paper and in due time a shipment of wonderful things would arrive.

    The Cargo Cult members built replicas of airports and airplanes out of twigs and branches and made the sounds associated with airplanes to try to activate the shipment of cargo.”)

    For BurningMan to celebrate “Cargo Cult”, as something positive, was absolutely an abomination. How can you get more opposite from Principle No. 3 – “Decommodification” (sic) – than to invoke one of the most pathological cults involving “commodities” in world history?

    And this year…. “i-Robot”. Incredible !!! This is what burners want as a marker of the future??? Robots??? When I started with (and subsequently worked for) BurningMan (from 2005), the idea that you would celebrate the annual “theme” with an über-high-tech machine, imitating/simulating human behaviors – totally divorced from world history, human history, emotional and spiritual roots, face-to-face interactions – would have been beyond imagination.

    Yet, now we have ” i-Robot “. (Thanks, Harvey! I attribute this to you, personally, since you presented yourself as the ultimate boss, the ultimate guru.)

    So, people will genuflect and regurgitate and adulate and prostitute before the idol of Larry Harvey. Was he a creative guy? Yes. Did he initiate an remarkable social event? Yes. Did he become seduced by power, and the extraordinary undisclosed personal profits from fronting the event (undisclosed, as an L.L.C., with no legal requirement to provide one iota of public financial disclosure) ? Yes. Was he a narcissistic self-promoter, functioning as a guru? – a cult-like guru with hundreds of self-interested paid and privileged functionaries? Yes. Did he contribute more than he took? Yes.

    But, in the end, he failed – because he allowed the movement to be completely corrupted by money, and personal power and agendas. The Ten Principles are in shambles:

    No. 4: Radical Self-Reliance. Absolutely ridiculous !! Look at the enormous elite, tech, executive, pay-to-play culture of BurningMan – Disneyland for the über-rich playboys, and their concubines, coming in from Europe and Silicon Valley on their luxury aircraft. Nothing could be further from “self-reliance” than the VIP culture of BurningMan today.

    No. 1: “Radical Inclusion”. Reality: it’s “inclu$ion” with a twist: it’s spelled $$$$. Poor, and working-class people, “participants”? – OUT!! Rich spectators? IN !!

    About 5-7 years ago, Borg reported that 40% of the total population of BRC were newbies. Fine. Do you like beer? So, now, dilute your favorite pint with 40% water. Like it? Deal with it. The following year, Borg reported that THAT year had, ALSO, a 40% proportion of newbies. 40% dilution, followed by another 40% dilution. So, how is your beer tasting now? It was diluted 40% one year, and the next year, it was diluted FURTHER another 40%. Each year adds another proportion of dilution. So now your beer has been diluted 80+% or so, maybe more…. it tastes like mouse pee.

    Do these people have a right to come to the playa? ABSOLUTELY !!! But, has the “original mainstream” population of burners (1990s – 2010s) been diluted nearly out of existence? Yes. The vast majority of the participants who created the ambiance of BurningMan in Nevada… are GONE. Lost forever. This was the direct result of the vast international P.R./media campaign created by the Founders (and Larry) in conjunction with their business management/financial-maximization consultants – created about 8-9 years ago.

    “Civic Responsibility” – Principle No. 7. How about that? For my first several years on-playa, I could truthfully say that I never saw ONE piece of trash (MOOP) left outside. Last year, about 4,000 bicycles were abandoned on-playa. Some 4,000 people were so rich, and so negligent, and so unlike traditional BurningMan peeps, just they just dumped their bikes on-playa, walked away, and probably flew away.

    No. 8: “Leave no Trace.” Uh, I think leaving 4,000 bikes is leaving a trace, no? SEE: above.

    Most all of this, PER HIS OWN OWNERSHIP AND SELF-PROMOTION, and GRANDIOSE EGO, should be laid at the feet of the idol of Larry Harvey. If you create a Frankenstein, you should be responsible for the actions of the Frankenstein. He created something good, and then – for self-promotion, ego, and huge, publicly unreported $$$ income – corrupted it (along with most of the original Founders). The “Cargo Cult” was a flow of money into the pockets of the Founders – NO public accounting, ever. “i – Robot” ? Sick. (Sick.) Robots and A.I., and “tech”, are, to me, are the antithesis of what I thought BurningMan was. But, apparently, “i-Robots” is the sop to the I.T., A.I., tech millennials who now are ensconced as paid/privileged burner “insiders” – promoted and enabled by Larry Harvey and the Founders.

    So, adulate and worship at the idol of Larry Harvey – for what he is worth – if you wish. But realize, too, that he shat in his own nest, corrupted his own creation, sold-out to money and fame, and played to the international media crowd. In my humble opinion, he created a great thing, but has nearly ruined it. His legacy, to many previous burners, is shot. He let us down, by the tens of thousands, I believe. I don’t think anyone has the guts, or the influence, to re-establish the 10 Principles. They have become a joke, to many. Too bad, because they were beautiful principles.

    Cheers.

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    • Jon Mitchell says:

      This is a fascinating rant, and you are entitled to the opinions in it. Do you have any… like… evidence to support the factual assertions in it?

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    • buck down says:

      Mestre A. – this is quite a voluminous response – too much so to address here point for point.

      having said that – some of your points are completely salient, and absolutely worth unpacking – most however are what could generously be described as pretty spurious assumptions based on a fairly subjective, if not limited understanding of the facts.

      i think this would make a great discussion though. i don’t know if you have any plans to attend the event this year – but i would totally be willing to have a public debate / discussion with you at someplace like center camp and air this out – because i think it would be fascinating to unpack.

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      • Erik says:

        I’d like to know what the two of you have to say, also.

        Last year was my first year, and the only place I experienced “Disneyland for uber-rich playboys and their concubines” was the occasional cynic on a burning man web forum before & after the event.

        Were there expensive art pieces? Yes, and I saw it as a sign of how much people are willing to invest merely to make this event better for the rest of us. I also encountered tonnes of wonderful, and I’ll invoke this word even if it gets a few groans, “magical” experiences that were simple and cheap; the elegance of them making them even more captivating.

        Now that I know what burning man is like firsthand, I’d just about give up a body part to be able to be part of one of those first burns, when it was truly no-rules and a tiny community. But that doesn’t take away from what it is now. Is it different? No doubt. But is it bad? Hell no. I met the kindest people ever, took new risks, and had more fun than I ever have.

        The VAST majority of people I communicated with or even just saw did live the 10 principles (which came way later than the event’s beginning, and I find it weird to be calling Larry an “idol” and then holding up these principles like commandments). If you pick 70000 apples indiscriminately you’re going to get a few bad ones, but those few don’t characterize the bunch. I choose to focus on growing the good instead of decrying the bad. Every veteran was once a virgin – even Larry himself

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      • Buck Down says:

        Erik – if it makes you feel any better – I’ve been going to Burning man for 21 straight years and people have been bitching about how someone else was totally ruining it and it was so much cooler before THE ENTIRE FUCKING TIME.

        The “Best Burning man” is always the next one if you do it right.

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    • Buena Chica says:

      You make valid points, that any will disagree with.

      Don’t let them put you down…. long timers, and specially people who actually are semi-official Burnign Man writers, HATE to be contradicted. They, unfortunately, fail to see hoe criticism IS ACTUALLY GOOD to improve our community.

      Why don’t; you write an article yourself on the points you make. And go tot he Forum Burners.ME. They are more open to give people a platform for Burner discontent, et al…..

      See you on Playa!

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  • Danger Ranger says:

    Mestre A. – You left out the aliens.

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  • Miranda says:

    Thanks Buck Down, you honor Larry with your beautiful words.

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  • Mestre A. says:

    Never said the people were bad. Virtually everyone is good.

    For the person who questioned the data, and the analysis: it’s all out there. (Read the afterburn reports from BurningMan itself, ré the demographics and turn-over. It explicitly documents the 40%-on-40% turnover, plus the subsequent several years of somewhat less shocking dilution (but it’s cumulative each year, right?). I, personally, heard much of the ‘internal/financial/management-company’/L.L.C./non-disclo$ed stuff, from a very (very!) highly placed person – never to be mentioned. Plus, I studied what was available about the numbers, and the legal status of BurningMan. And, as I mentioned, I worked for BurningMan for 6 years over a 12 year period, But, this is not about me at all. It’s simply what I have learned.

    Everything changes. Nothing remains the same. Evolution happens. In about 1977, my then-90 y.o. landlord said, regarding his arrival by 3-masted ship in Los Angeles, as a youth: “Los Angeles was ‘God’s own country’: gorgeous, open, barely inhabited, with incredible fresh air, weather, grazing… a few Missions… you could see a hundred miles.

    Now look at it. Things change.

    What I think should also be added, to such a conversation as this, would be something along these lines:

    ** For every burner who arrives on-playa for the first time, the clock – the experiential clock – starts at that very moment, for him or her. Everything, all their experience, proceeds from there. What went before is not the issue; in fact, it is unknown to them. Their experience starts… THEN. I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the playa is still SO GREAT, that virtually every newcomer will be blown away, and potentially find transformative experiences. It is still remarkable, especially if you have not known it from before. It is still totally worth it. I applaud the newcomers, and hope they thrive.

    But, to return to the analogy of my old landlord: his generation, who came around the Horn on sailing vessels, to Los Angeles, would have a hard time accepting the Los Angeles of today. BurningMan has changed, in profound ways – primarily involving money, profits out of the public eye, non-disclosure, VIPs, privileged classes and social tiers (with servants), many extensive elite and special arrangements, a transition from “participants” to “spectators”, and super-high-dollar “art” (viz: the Boeing 747).

    Unfortunately, my own experience and knowledge suggests to me that Larry Harvey had lost his vision, and perhaps his principles. He was seduced by money (personally), overall profits, social power, hobnobbing with the tech elite, business consultants, Silicon Valley titans, the media, and more… And, so, what many thought was the authentic BurningMan – “Everyman’s BurningMan” – is fading fast.

    That said, I wish ALL burners good will, and a good time, and… try to salvage the 10 Principles, if you can. Either there, or at home.

    Peace.

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    • buck down says:

      i think you may be WILDLY underestimating what is required to sustain a 80,000 person public ticketed event that is built on what could be generously described as a frequently ambivalent relationship with the lessor of the event site (the BLM)

      the fact that burning man has willfully denied themselves literally HUNDREDS of income streams normally available to event of this nature that could not only be used to underwrite the production costs, but make this event a giant cash cow is evidence that your notion that this is some cash grab is pretty unfounded. try looking at coachella or EDC’s books sometime. do you have any idea how many corporate and vendor dollars make up every other event this size’s balance sheet?

      so here’s your choice – burning man could make it’s ticket price cheaper by bringing in corporate dollars and you could have the demographics skew back to include a higher percentage of lower income people –

      or – the ticket price is higher and no corporate money comes in – and you continue to try and find ways to create opportunities for low income people to attend that don’t involve having to turn it into coachella.

      if “real burning man” to you is being out in an empty desert with no rules and doing things like dragging each other around on a tarp tied to a car bumper – NOTHING IS STOPPING YOU FROM DOING THAT. the west is full of empty deserts.

      but i think you’d find that if your outlaw desert festival was cool enough to still be going almost 30 years later – you’d be looking at all the same faustian bargins – and the internet would be full of people accusing you of being a money grubbing sellout.

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  • Bliss says:

    Buck Down,
    I enjoyed your piece immensely. Thank you for bringing this perspective into the light.
    See you soon!

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  • Graham St John says:

    An excellent piece of writing on Burning Man and Larry’s legacy. Thank you!

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  • Buena Chica says:

    *ALways said Larry was a Master in the Art of Doing Nothing myself!!! Appreciate another would write on this.

    I am simply satisfied with my last talk with Larry on Playa last year. I am glad I seized the opportunity to talk to him…… and always so amazed at Larry’s amazing approachable personality and the way he truly listened to our concerns NO MATTER who we were, we are all Burners alike after all!!

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