The Art of Destruction

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When we think of art, we think of museums, places where we preserve human creations for later generations. Not all art, though, is meant to last forever. Some artworks are designed for destruction, and a couple of Texas artists are at the forefront in modernizing this ancient, ritualistic fusion of art and spirituality.

For centuries Tibetan monks have created intricate sand paintings, or mandalas, as an exercise in appreciating the impermanence of the universe. They draw a design on a wooden platform. Then they pour colored sand through tiny funnels onto the pattern. Mandalas can take days or weeks to create.

A mandala, though, should not last long. Soon after completion, a religious ceremony culminates in the mandala’s destruction. The monks give half the sand to those attending as a blessing. The other half is poured into a body of water, where they hope it will flow to the ocean and carry their prayers around the world.

For a little more crackle, fire adds spectacle to art and ritual. Anthropologists have traced fire rituals to the beginning of mankind. Zoroastrians in Iran built fire temples to celebrate what they considered an agent of purity. In the New Testament’s book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is manifested as “tongues of fire.”

Fire warms. Fire captivates. Fire destroys. Fire is just plain cool.

Austinites Dave Umlas and Marilee Ratcliffe have formed Community Art Makers, a loose volunteer organization that brings together dozens of creative Texans to set stuff on fire in breathtaking ways. If you are imagining something akin to the Aggie bonfire that our governor loves so much, think again. Umlas and Ratcliffe spend weeks bent over a computer engineering elaborate structures worthy of a museum’s permanent collection. Such a fate would be too highfalutin for their art. For them, the creative spark is not a metaphor.

For the First Night Austin celebration on New Year’s Eve 2008, the artists and their team designed and built a 34-foot, dual-faced clock tower from filigreed plywood. Throughout the day, folks were invited to write their New Year’s resolutions on pieces of paper and to stick them onto the clock. The First Night parade ended at the foot of the tower. A short time later, fireworks ignited the “Resolution Clock” into a ball of flame that lifted thousands of smoldering resolutions to the heavens.

This kind of creation and transformation is central to Umlas’ and Ratcliffe’s aesthetic. Their art is incomplete until the object is built, destroyed and the space it occupied returned to its original state. Fans argue the art is made more profound because it is a unique experience, available afterward only on YouTube.

This year the Community Art Makers were commissioned to build the temple for the Burning Man Festival, a Utopian gathering of 50,000 anarchistic artists and those who love them. It’s the first time Burning Man organizers have chosen artists from outside California to build the temple.

Burning Man participants construct a temporary city in the Black Rock Desert outside of Reno, Nevada, every year. The dry lake bed is void of human habitation before the festival, and nothing can be left behind afterward. Organizers bill it as “an annual art event and temporary community based on radical self-expression and self-reliance.” Attendees are encouraged to express themselves in whatever form they wish. Self-reliance is a necessity in the desert wilderness.

The Burning Man of the festival’s title is a four-story, wooden effigy striped with neon. Its immolation represents transcendence. The effigy burns on the Saturday night before Labor Day and is followed by a frenzied, all-night party set to thumping techno music. The other important ritual is burning the temple. While the Burning Man effigy is the same every year, the temple is always different. Festival participants can write messages on the temple walls or leave personal objects. Most people use the temple, and its destruction, as a release for some pain from their past: a lost loved one, a broken heart or the collapse of a trust fund in the recession.

Ratcliffe and Umlas named their temple Fire of Fires.

“Fire is our closest analog to spirit, it’s a spectacular metaphor of ecstasy, sex and enlightenment,” they say in their philosophical statement for the project. “It is considered to be an agent of purity and a symbol of righteousness and truth.”

The open-air temple was 52-feet high and shaped like a lotus, but instead of petals, there were fingers of flame cut from plywood forming a cupola. A column of gas-fed flames rose through the middle of the structure, encased in 32 vertical feet of polycarbonate sheathing. To reach the top, where the flame and cupola opened to the sky, visitors had to climb to one of six mezzanines, each of which represented a different part of the world.

the temple after

These “cultural pods” were cut with a “computer numerical control router,” which is basically a jigsaw the size of your living room. It’ll cut any pattern you can imagine into half-inch plywood. So the European pod had Cathedral patterns, the Asian pod had Japanese patterns, the Middle East pod had mosque patterns, and so on.

On the second level, the patterns swirled and merged. The designs disappeared on the third level, and the cage of plywood flames opened to the sky.

Tracey Hayes is one of the volunteers who helped fabricate the temple in North Austin and then traveled to the desert to help assemble it. She says the team worked around the clock after materials arrived in mid-August to open the temple by Sept. 1. When sandstorms swept their tent city, the crew often wished they could just burn it immediately and make a runner, Hayes says.

“It wasn’t until it was done and people started coming in to write on the walls and to leave mementos for their loved ones, who had gone before them, that it really set in that we didn’t just accomplish a task, we had built a place that had a significant meaning for the 50,000 people who were attending,” Hayes says.

Participants brought tens of thousands of objects to burn with the temple. Some brought the ashes of loved ones to be cremated a second time.

“The temple was covered with loss, but I want to add that people also wrote messages about gratitude and forgiveness,” Hayes says. “Every time I went into the temple, I burst into tears.”

On the final day volunteers started shutting down the temple to prepare for the burn by installing pyrotechnics. This is not something you set ablaze with a Bic lighter and a rolled-up newspaper. But Tracy says a husband and wife were on the ground floor, intending to climb the stairs with a tiny coffin. The couple begged to take the coffin to the top level, but it was no longer safe. After the team offered to take the coffin for them, they knelt on the temple floor with the coffin.

“They had apparently lost an infant, and they opened it up and it was full of little stuffed animals and toys and stuff the baby had played with. They just wailed and wailed. They mourned the loss of their baby right there, very openly,” Hayes says, sobbing as she tells the story. “They then closed the box and gave it to the team and walked away. Hopefully the temple provided them with what they needed to heal and move on.”

When the temple was set alight on the festival’s final night, the crowd was ready, though it wasn’t clear whether they were creatively satiated, over-stimulated or just battered by the daily sandstorms. Hayes estimates 30,000 people formed a giant circle around the Fire of Fires on Sept. 6. The crowd started a pulsing chant that traveled around the circle like a wave of sound. A parachute team that had to reschedule because of high winds the night before jumped 10,000 feet overhead with fireworks streaming from their heels, looking like comets plummeting to earth.

“We knew the temple was built to burn beautifully. We knew it was something that’s purpose was to let go, to be a transitional vehicle, to exist momentarily and provide a mechanism to deliver a release,” Hayes says. “Once it burned, it was like a ton of weight was lifted from my shoulders, and it was freeing.”

The Burning Man temple was built as a postmodern, contemporary art piece. But it also qualified as a neo-Pagan ritual, following a long tradition of mingling art and spirituality. The art of destruction lives on.