Desert Arts Preview: Spoiler Alert! Majestic, Thoughtful Art Coming to the Playa

Desert Arts Preview is one of my favorite events in the Burner year. I know it takes some of the surprise out of seeing the art on playa for the first time, but I’ve found its value to trump the spoiler-ific nature of the event. By arming me with the pieces’ origin stories and details of just how MEGA some of these productions are, the Desert Arts Preview gives me a deeper appreciation when I encounter the same works in the desert.

By June 4, a whopping 433 pieces of art had been registered for 2019 — already 75 more pieces than at the same point last year. (Artists can still register now and all summer, all the way through Wednesday of the event.) Fifteen of those installations were previewed on June 2 at the Sydney Goldstein Theater in San Francisco. Each piece was as unique as the artists themselves, but three trends give this post a tidy organizing principle:


1) Female Empowerment

Women continue to roar. That includes commanding narratives — and power tools — that previous generations might not have felt as comfortable owning. 

The Flaming Lotus Girls have long encouraged all populations, especially women, to join them in welding and fire arts, and they’re back in 2019 with an installation called “Serenity” — three giant fireflies (and many smaller ones) escaping the pieces of a large, broken jar. 

Groups that support girls and women in S.T.E.A.M. disciplines are powering at least two more pieces. KiraKira3D, an organization that “arms female makers with the confidence to pursue careers in technology,” was founded by Suz Somersall, who’s bringing “Wing Portal” to the playa. 

Eighteen-year-old Tahoe Mack’s “The Monumental Mammoth” wouldn’t be happening without her Girl Scouts experience. A recipient of the Scouts’ gold award, Mack was challenged to find a need in her community and create a sustainable solution. We’ll tell you more about Mammoth and Portal in the third part of this post, but suffice to say they’ll be inspiring many girls to put on protective goggles and build. 

“The Ovule Project” by Zoe Fry and The Introverts Collective encourages us to drop the gender binary altogether by creating a “universal self-portrait” at the center of which will be a tree trunk made up of myriad body types. 

“I’m building it for me, to find my voice as a woman, and I’m building it to be an invitation for others to join me in a love affair,” the artist explained on her website. “The love affair I seek to inspire is with Mother Nature, with the spectrum of plants, animals, and humanity that exists on this gloriously magnificent gem of a planet we call home.”


2) Vulnerability

Not that Burners need permission, but a theme like Metamorphoses gives people a little more license to fully embrace life’s ups and downs. The first presentation of the night, “Cone Down” by Josh Zubkoff and Looking Up Arts Foundation, did that unapologetically. Inspired by disappointing experiences — not getting a grant, a public contract getting cancelled — the 30’ high steel upside down ice cream cone is a whimsical reminder that “sometimes you need to eat a shit sandwich.” 

Nathan Altman, a.k.a Mary Poppins, admitted that his vision for “The Inner Sun Project” wasn’t going to be realized this year and instead previewed a truncated version: a sculpture made up of handprints on which people shared a few words about what matters to them. Poppins was clearly disappointed when speaking about his project; it was another reminder that things don’t always go as planned.

Speaking of vulnerability, it doesn’t get much more scary than uttering the three little words that the “I.L.Y.” installation stands for. This piece is “about facing your fear and saying it,” said creator Dan Mountain, in his first year as a lead artist. “And it shoots fire,” he added — the ultimate Burner artist mic-drop. 

But perhaps most heart-opening of all was hearing The Temple of Direction designer Geordie Van Der Bosch explain how the project thrust him into a new kind of leadership role. He choked up several times relaying the thought and care he’s giving to the Temple experience for you, dear Burners, and how he wants to create sacredness through simplicity.


3) Reclaimed Resources 

Sustainability is on top of many minds, and at least three pieces emphasized their upcycled materials. Somersall’s “Wing Portal” is an 80’ wide structure, with each feather symbolizing a home that was lost in the California wildfires. It is literally made from the ruins of that devastating event. 

Usually a project’s design will inform which materials are needed, but David Keene and his crew are letting the reclaimed wood, fences and whatever they find dictate their design with “The Folly.” By “turning trash into art,” the piece will emerge as a mini village and hub for performances of all kinds. 

“The Monumental Mammoth?” You guessed it: made from trash. Mack is working with artists Luis Varelo-Rico and Dana Albany to bring the life-sized creature out of extinction and into artistic glory. “We are only as small as our dreams,” the teen said, “so let’s build a mammoth.”

Check out our Facebook gallery for more photos from the Desert Arts Preview 2019.

Top photo: Shrine of Sympathetic Resonance by Tyson Ayers, photo by Chuck Revell.

About the author: Mia Quagliarello

Mia Quagliarello

Mia Quagliarello is Burning Man Project's Digital Community Manager. She went to Burning Man for the first time in 2006 (seven months pregnant, no less) and immediately wanted to leave. (She didn't know dust storms were a thing.) But 24 hours after that initial shock, she fell in love with it, and it's been a part of her life in big and small ways ever since. On playa, you'll usually find her camping in Kidsville, riding Bahamut the dragon, or hugging a speaker because she loves music so much.

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