My companion for the week at Burning Man was the Wandering Jewess, who as the director of the Six Points Fellowship, knows a thing or two about art. Here’s her take on the Burn’s artistic offerings and their relationship to Jewish experience:
One way to characterize Burning Man is as an art festival. When I’m pressed to reduce the meaning of art to a sentence, I often say that art "creates meaning in people’s lives," or "helps us see the world and our experiences in a new way." Part of the allure of Burning Man (and part of what made it such fun) was that I often felt like I was living inside a gigantic piece of ephemeral participatory performance art. It wasn’t the kind of art you’d see in a gallery, walk around while murmuring intelligent sounding comments, and then leave and go to dinner. It was full of costumes, purposefully mediated experiences, and a very heavy dose of theatricality. But unlike much art that demands little real engagement, everyone there was part of the piece, interacting with abandon, and trying to read meaning into the experience.
There was a time tunnel that took us through the process of evolution, which included pop cultural objects like stuffed monkeys, a faux airplane, and surreal lighting. Or a series of unusual true mirrors, that forced you to shift how you saw your physical self, triggering a reconsideration of our own larger self-perceptions. I heard from so many people about how the festival modifies their awareness, and impacts how they see their lives outside of the week-long event.
Reading and experiencing art has everything to do with how you’re walking into the experience, your background (and baggage), knowledge of art and the issues, and your willingness to engage with it. I found that Burning Man created an atmosphere of openness and exploration that allowed participants to really deeply enter into the work, and therefore learn and gain deeply from the experience.
I think that’s not so different from how we understand Judaism and spirituality. That’s another trope of Burning Man, the spiritual experience. And I think that the openness of entering into the possibility of meaning which drives the art consumption at Burning Man, also fuels the spiritual experience. How often do we walk into a synagogue expecting to have a transformative experience? My personal answer is very rarely, maybe when I’m nearly delirious from fasting on Yom Kippur. But when you’re at a place, hoping and expecting to find something meaningful, in a community that wants to provide that for each other, it seems inevitable that spiritual experiences and growth develop.