A year has passed since we bid a final farewell to Burning Man Founder Larry Harvey, and we remember the Man in the Hat by sharing articles, audio and videos from friends, family and co-conspirators. Here, Burning Man’s former Minister of Propaganda Will Chase shares his musings about what this ‘second father’ meant to him and to the rest of the world.
The first time I saw Larry Harvey in person, he was wearing a hospital gown. It was Burn Night of 2002, my second year, and we were just in front of First Camp when Larry crossed my path en route to join a small gathering of people surrounding a lifesize, pitch-perfect steel-and-wax effigy of himself.
Which they proceeded to set on fire.
I watched from afar as this utterly surreal scene played out. Once the pyre had begun to smolder, Larry wandered back to First Camp, alone. As he crossed the Esplanade, a gentle dust plume blew in, a Mutant Vehicle passed behind him, and he disappeared into the dust like an apparition.
Flash forward — I think it was 2009, but they all blur together, honestly — we were at a Burning Man staff retreat, and DaveX hosted a storytelling night around the fire. People popped in and out, and the stories flowed around the circle. I told the story of my first Larry sighting.
Then others followed, embellishing my story with their version of what happened that night … and then another, until the entire picture was painted. The people in that gaggle around the pyre were the Burning Man Founders, I came to learn.
Larry had had some hospital procedure or other and had bailed out of the hospital to be in Black Rock City. And why not bring the gown? Apparently he also absconded with his IV pole rig and brought that along too — because Larry.
The last time I saw Larry in person, he was wearing a hospital gown. But this time, I was visiting him in the ICU after his stroke. During that week, I spent lots of time thinking about him and what he meant to me — he was like a second father — and to the world. I guess when people are dying, we’re compelled to reflect on the bigger picture, and that person’s place in our world and the world at large. What did they accomplish? What did they bring to the table?
Sitting there by his bedside — I don’t know why I hadn’t realized it before, maybe I was too close to it all — it dawned on me that this man had created a platform that made him the single most prolific instigator of art the world has ever known. Think about it. He created the ultimate platform for unfettered artistic creativity of all kinds, by professional, would-be and wannabe artists alike.
Think of the number of art installations that have been on playa each of the event’s 30 years. Think of the ones you don’t even know about. Think of the small stuff, the massive stuff, the “WTF is that?” stuff. The installations, the vehicles, the camps, the costumes … and let’s not forget all the weird shit in the back alleys.
Think of the stuff at the 90+ official Burning Man events around the world, and at countless Burning Man-inspired events as well. How much of that would exist if it wasn’t for what Larry created and cultivated?
So I’ll say this, and I challenge you to disprove it: nobody in history has created a platform that has instigated more art than Larry Harvey.
The great irony is that he’ll likely never be recognized for it, because the mainstream art world (the Smithsonian, Cincinnati and Oakland museums aside) will always resist the fact that an avowed and avid outsider, hellbent on democratizing art and liberating it from its cloistered halls and walls, beat them at their game.
They won’t acknowledge that what they’ve always demeaned as a “counter-cultural event” was actually a cultural event all along. They can look down their noses all they want, and that’s fine, but we know better.
It’s strangely appropriate that my personal experience of Larry was bookended by such a bizarre coincidence as a pair of hospital gowns, because there was an odd poetry to Larry’s life. And sometimes it’s the oddest poets whose words we need to listen to, because they have something important to say that others can’t hear. And sometimes they’ll do the things that others can’t fathom. Thank you, Larry.
Top photo: Larry Harvey and Will Chase at the 2010 Artumnal Gathering. Photo by Pilar Woodman