ritish director Gerald Fox had never been to Burning Man before his first sojourn to Nevada’s barren Black Rock Desert in 2018. Filmed shortly after the death of Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, his documentary Burning Man: Art on Fire traces the high-risk and often unpredictable journey of the artists creating monumental works at the famous event, held over a week in August, in an immersive, visual spectacle.
With slow-motion photography, time-lapse sequences, drone footage, handheld photography, floating gimbal images, night-vision shots and filters to enhance the dust-layered qualities of the desert, the resulting documentary is the closest anyone has come to exploring Burning Man on film.
This Spring, Radical Horizons: The Art of Burning Man at Chatsworth (9 April – 1 October 2022) - an unprecedented collaboration between the two very different institutions, initiated by Sotheby's - is taking place, featuring 12 monumental sculptures, free to enjoy for all, in the parklands surrounding Chatsworth House. And to celebrate the launch of this special project, we spoke to Gerry Fox, to hear how the BAFTA and Grierson award-winning director dealt with the challenges and dynamics of documenting a cultural movement that stretches way, way beyond the Nevada desert.
How did Burning Man: Art on Fire come about?
Sophia Swire, a producer and regular Burner, had gone to a symposium in Oxford where she met Jennifer Raiser, author of Burning Man: Art on Fire and suggested making a film about the event – they had already started before I came on board. I had never been to Burning Man and it was an opportunity to go to an event I had always wanted to attend and that I had heard about for years.
What about Burning Man appealed to you as a filmmaker?
As a filmmaker who normally concentrates on the leading artists in the world, I thought it would be fun to do a film that followed a number of different artists creating their works, from the Galaxia temple to fire-breathing giants and a Hindu-style robot deity. I wanted to tell a story of Burning Man through the artists themselves, interweaving their stories and building a portrait of these characters who create Burning Man from the ground up. I also thought that the hallucinatory quality of the playa would be spectacular to film and nowadays, of course, with drone cameras and other technical means you can really convey the spirit, energy and sensorial excitement of being there.
'Everyone is working away in tough conditions, including dust storms and gale-force winds... dust and sand gets into everything and we were constantly cleaning cameras'
What was your first impression of the Black Rock Desert?
I arrived at night and when I woke up I honestly thought I was on Mars. It was a slightly overcast day where you couldn’t even see the mountains, so you were in this zone of nothingness. Everyone is working away in tough conditions, including dust storms and gale-force winds. It’s really hard on equipment because dust and sand gets into everything and we were constantly cleaning cameras. The physical difficulties of filming at Burning Man are not to be minimised and that applies equally to the people who are building the artworks, because many of them are volunteers. They’ve never done anything like this before and they’re building structures that would normally require months in the space of weeks in the middle of desert. But you also have to realise that it’s an incredibly enriching experience for them: it’s exciting, it’s a commitment, and there’s a sense of community in trying to build these structures that makes the eventual artwork bigger than just what it is physically.
How did you deal with the challenges of filming in that environment?
In terms of the difficulties of filming, you have to be aware that it’s quite the long haul – we were out there two or three weeks before Burning Man even started and had to watch that people didn’t get exhausted or find it too difficult. By the time the actual event starts, they are going to S&M clubs at night and you don’t know where they are the next day as there’s no mobile phone contact.
The hostile working conditions must have taken quite a toll on production!
You have to keep your energy to get to that final moment because the closing days are really special. Take for example, being with Jennifer Raiser as the sun’s coming through at five in the morning – if you miss that shot you missed it. And as a filmmaker you want to be right there, when the temples are burning – you’ve got to make sure that your crew are motivated to keep going for quite a long period. Of course, there are distractions as the event goes on, but it’s very spectacular.
How did you get into the mindset of Burning Man and its community?
I’ve been in worlds with people like that previously, though I can imagine some would find it very discombobulating and almost alien in some ways. It was the artists at Burning Man who really inspired me. Just like if you’re making a film about Gerhard Richter or Gilbert & George – some of the people that I’ve made films about – you get into their mindset through the inspiring quality that they bring to their art, through their devotion to doing this for very little money and in very tough conditions for no other reason than to bring delight and excitement to the people who go to Burning Man. The participatory nature of it is very immediate, engaging and challenging, but ultimately fun.
There are also harrowing moments throughout your film as the installations come together. What makes a successful artwork?
In order to create great art for Burning Man you need to have been a couple of times to understand what works: it has to be big; it has to have a participatory quality; and it has to work visually at night and in the day. For example, architect Bjarke Ingles created a large mirrored orb that he was hoping would be perfectly silver and reflect Burning Man – but he hadn’t realised that the material he used for the orb attracted the desert dust. That was the one thing I did pick up there: you have to know what you’re doing at Burning Man in order to create great art for Burning Man.
How has Burning Man managed to become a cultural force?
I think it’s because it gives people an opportunity to step out of themselves for the period they are there. They can live a different life, a freer existence – you can do what you want, you can be who you want to be, you are able to have an alternative existence for that short time in a city that’s created simply for the benefit of the people who go there. The danger aspect is also definitely there and I suppose that’s part of the edginess of the experience. That sense of community, the unpredictability of the experience, make it exciting, and that’s why it’s grown.
'The danger aspect is also definitely there and I suppose that’s part of the edginess of the experience. That sense of community, the unpredictability of the experience, make it exciting...'
It’s truly become a global movement, with regional events all over. What do you think is in store for this year?
There’s AfrikaBurn, Midburn in Israel, they have smaller events all over the US – it has expanded in that way. Then we made the film the same year Larry Harvey died, and there was a real power and energy to pull out all the stops in terms of the artworks. I heard that the following year – which was the last year before the Covid-19 pandemic – that they scaled back, because I think that the Galaxia temple almost didn’t happen in 2018, because of the architectural ambition and complicated nature of the wood structure. And then suddenly, they were hit by the pandemic. Over the last two years, much of it went into the metaverse but it’s not the same because Burning Man is meant to be a live event. I imagine there’ll be a lot of energy to do it on a grand scale.
Is engagement with institutions like Chatsworth House how the event will adapt and evolve?
There have been some very clever and dynamic works that should be seen in a contemporary art context – and not just as outsider art that can only exist in the playa at Burning Man. I am looking forward to the Chatsworth exhibition in that sense, because it’ll show the artworks for what they are, and the artists’ concepts and their ideas behind them. A lot of these artists have struggled for a long time to make their name and to show their work because it’s not commercial, so the opportunity to see it in places like Chatsworth is fantastic and well-deserved. I really like the selection for the exhibition and thought that the curators really put their fingers on some of the some of the really interesting and exciting works to come from Burning Man. I’m sure that visitors will also be quite dazzled by seeing them in a setting like Chatsworth.
Some of the artists in your film will be exhibiting at Chatsworth. Whose work are you looking forward to seeing?
I admire Dana Albany, both for being a woman who really grasps the scale of sculptural ambition necessary for her works to stand out in the vast desert landscape and for her use of found materials – like bicycle chains, cherry stoners, cutlery, metal objects – that she sculpts into beautiful and also emotionally moving sculptures. She gets down and dirty with blowtorches, hammers, power tools and produces stunning, sensitive works on a huge scale. Plus, she is the long-suffering wife of the crazy but endlessly charming Flash Hopkins – a Burning Man legend.
Radical Horizons: The Art Of Burning Man is now on at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire. The sculptures featuring in the exhibition are: The Flybrary by Christina Sporrong, Lodestar by Randy Polumbo, Spread Eagle Wings of Wind by Bryan Tedrick, Le Attrata by Margaret Long and Orion Fredericks, Mum by Mr & Mrs Ferguson, Murder, Inc. by Charles Gadeken, Transmutation by Arturo Gonzales and Maru Izaguirre, and Wings of Glory by Adrian Landon. There are also four works built on site by Benjamin Langholz with engineering by Amihay Gonen, Dana Albany, Shrine and Rebekah Waites.
The exhibition is free to access, however if you are visiting by car, and wish to park at Chatsworth, you must book in advance. Please note that if you book a ticket for the house, garden or farmyard, parking is included, and you do not need to book a separate car park ticket. If you wish to only use the car park, an advance car park ticket must be booked. You can book tickets here