In March 2018, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, launched the exhibit “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man”, which brought large-scale, participatory work from the desert gathering to the nation’s capital for the first time.
The majority of the exhibit was set to close in January 2019, including the “Temple”, designed by David Best to emulate the sacred space for reflection and release built annually at Black Rock City (BRC). Best has built eight Temples at BRC since 2005, and several others around the world.
As with all of Best’s Temples, the Renwick Temple offered a key participatory element. Visitors were invited to write on a wooden tablet and leave it in the “Temple”. Some came back to reflect and write multiple times, and others left momentos in tribute to loved ones lost, such as Larry Harvey, co-founder of Burning Man, who passed away on April 28, 2019, shortly after he attended the opening of the exhibit.
As the exhibit came to a close, everyone wondered what would become of the thousands of wooden tablets left behind in the “Temple”, as it is customary for them to be burned along with the structure.
Then, in November 2018, Brody Scotland, a Logistics and Analytics Coordinator with Burning Man, came to visit Washington, DC, and mentioned in a local meeting that the Renwick and Burning Man were trying to figure out what to do with the wooden tablets from David Best’s “Temple”.
She asked if there was an opportunity for the local DC community to incorporate the tablets into their art and burn them if we were interested in doing so. The immediate response was a resounding yes. Brody indicated she would reach out to the Renwick and get the ball rolling.
Meanwhile, I reached out to local artist Michael Verdon and the art collective Infinity Gathered, who we were working on a few upcoming art projects, and mentioned the possibility. The opportunity was met with excitement and we immediately began brainstorming how the tablets could be incorporated into upcoming temple builds if we received the grants or funding for them.
In December, we reached out to the Renwick to officially get the conversation started. Then the holidays hit, the government shutdown happened, and months went by with no response from the Renwick. Admittedly, we were bummed out, but the design of the temple art projects had to move forward — wooden tablets or not.
Then, in April, we received a message from Elana Hain from the Renwick that revived the conversation. She said there were four palettes with 100 boxes (weighing 1600 pounds) filled with all of the individual tablets from the “Temple” that the museum needed to find someone to take. This was no small sum. And the one request was that they be burned in alignment with the 10 Principles of Burning Man.
Logistically and artistically, we were limited in what we could do on such short notice with an art project at hand, the Temple at Catharsis on the Mall 2019: Our Mothership, a free, public Burning Man-inspired event on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
We committed to incorporating at least a few of the boxes into the “Well”, the only structure of the 2019 Catharsis Temple permitted to burn on the National Mall in accordance with Federal Park Service regulations. Thus, the wooden tablets were beautifully burned on Saturday, May 4, 2019.
After we celebrated the success of this year’s Catharsis, the unburned portion of the 2019 Catharsis Temple was broken down, and we still needed to figure out how to get the remaining 90+ boxes of wooden tablets to BRC to be burned.
Infinity Gathered to the rescue! We had already planned to combine the unburned portion of the 2019 Catharsis Temple with the 2017 Catharsis Temple (also unburned for the same Federal Park Service regulations) to create and bring a new art project to BRC — “The Chapel of the Chimes”.
However, when we began having conversations with Burning Man, we realized we had a conundrum on our hands. The pieces of wood used to build Best’s “Temple” at the Renwick are 2” x 3” squares made of 1/8th birch, which does not fit the preferred requirements for wood to be burned on Playa.
This is due to a more significant risk of ember casting, which creates a ton of Matter Out of Place (MOOP) and adds lots of extra volunteer time to rake and clean up the surrounding desert floor. However, given the special opportunity to bring Best’s Temple tablets to the desert, and honor the people who wrote on them, we were determined to find a way to get them there to burn.
The initial design of the “Chapel of the Chimes” consisted of benches surrounding the structure on several sides. These benches had already been built. Infinity Gathered then came up with the idea to rebuild the benches to fit the wooden boxes inside. The new plan is to build enough benches so that all 100 boxes, filled with the wooden tablets from the Renwick Gallery exhibit, can fit into them.
When it’s time for the “Chapel of the Chimes” to burn, the benches will be stacked in the center of the structure to represent the burning heart and sacred space of the chapel. The result will create a magnificent glow as the Chapel is set ablaze, lifting up the hundreds of thousands of prayers from Best’s Temple, as well as the 2017 and 2019 Catharsis on the Mall Temples.
Because no Burning Man art project would be complete without a little synchronicity, the convergence of these three Temples into one at Black Rock City illuminates their final transformation in the year when Burning Man’s art theme is Metamorphoses. How serendipitous.
Top photo: David Best’s “Temple” at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC (Photo by Jamie Smith)