Reflections of a Burning Man Virgin
By Moses Ma • September 10th, 2006

It was my first time at Burning Man. It was so wild and crazy and impactful, that I can’t seem to stop thinking about it. As a result, I thought I’d write this madness out of my system, so here goes…

The first thing I have to say is that attending Burning Man is the closest thing I can imagine to visiting another planet. What’s more, it’s a planet with a hostile atmosphere, perhaps like Mercury - oppressively hot during the day and bone chilling cold at night. When I say oppressively hot, what I mean is that during high noon, it was like the heat was literally pressing me into the ground like a new kind of force, let’s call it thermogravity. Prostrate inside my tent, trying to hide from the sun, the heat bore down on me to the point where even lifting my head required too much effort. It got to the point where all I could do to fight was to feebly raise my spray bottle against the heat, to spray some water as protest. Sssst! Ah! As the atomizer released a fine mist of evaporative cooling, a wave of cool pleasure would course through my system. Sssst! Ah! Damn, the thrill of the mister would only last a second before the heat renewed its oppressive agenda, rendering me captive in a puddle of sweat. Sssst! Ah!

Fortunately, during the day’s long journey hot as hell to freezing night, the temperature passed through something more moderate, something that could sustain life. As a result, the late afternoon became my favorite time of day on the playa, when cool winds would appear from nowhere. The escape from heat felt like sudden freedom, and the ability to ride about and look around was sheer joy. During the late afternoons, it was still like being on another planet, but one where the atmosphere was temperate and hospitable, and the strange aliens were extremely friendly. These aliens bore gifts of snacks and martinis, but still, they were bizarre, outlandish, garish. Just standing there watching burners walk about felt like having ingested a mild hallucinogenic.

During these jaunts, I discovered that the most amazing thing at Burning Man is the art, which was both powerful and visceral in its impact. I have to say that there is better art here than in any gallery in New York, and that Burning Man is undoubtably the most important art exhibition in the world. These gatherings will someday be remembered as the equivalent to Paris salons during the Impressionist era. And the fact that much of the art presented is burned at the end of the event, like the Belgian Uchronia art installation that cost $300,000 to build… well, it made the art so much more important to see and experience while you could. Like the blossoming of a rare orchid or cactus flower, it’s something you wanted to rush to experience before it blew away in the wind, like a Tibetan mandala. And the fact that you couldn’t buy this art - you had to pay for it with the labor of trekking across a harsh desert - it felt like a gleeful slap in the face to greedy art brokers in Chelsea. Burning Uchronia was like the echo of thousands of artists all over the world shouting, “You can’t buy this and you can’t buy me, you fuckers.”

Actually, everything felt like art to me. Obviously, the installations out on the Playa felt like art because they were art. And the art cars that boggled the mind were whimsical and endearing enough to melt even an art critic’s ice cold heart. But to me, the people themselves were the greatest works of art. See in your mind’s eye, people of every color in the rainbow, walking across the desert to see and experience art, this act in itself felt like performance art to me. There’s something about the light in the playa that makes people look more beautiful. It’s the reason photographers love shooting in the desert, having the white sand reflect light upwards and wash out all those wrinkles and blemishes.

The next dislocation of social familiarity was caused by not being allowed to use money at the event. It is perhaps this rule, more than any other, that made Burning Man feel different from than any similar event I had ever experienced. This innocuous rule of not allowing lucre to be traded, created an economy based solely on good will and sharing. This gift economy was so foreign that it could probably unnerve any red-blooded Republican, forcing him to curl into a fetal ball in his 70 foot RV, wondering what the world had come to because he couldn’t buy dinner, or a drink, or some pussy. For me, the negation of money meant that I did not have to suffer the obligation of consuming the kind of food that food vendors sell at the typical street fair. Instead, as I walked or rode along the streets, so many people would many people would yell to me, “hey, you want some lemonade?” or “we’re giving away tea and cookies!” or “how about an ice cold margarita?”

I tell you, nothing… NOTHING… was ever so refreshing as a free ice cold popsicle given to you out of nowhere, during a hot and dusty ride on the playa. What’s more, it was handed out by someone who thinks that handing out popsicles is an artform. And you know? Gifting IS an artform. One of the first experiences I had of gifting here was when a guy runs up to me and says, “Hey, you want some scissors?” “I reply, “Scissors?” His reply, as he hands me a small pair of scissors, “Yeah, I’m the guy who gives away scissors.” What a concept. If this isn’t performance art, what is?

So what about all the sex and nudity? Honestly, with the exception of Critical Tits, when a bunch of women ride around topless, there wasn’t really that much nudity happening. Maybe less than a few percent of the people were nude, consisting primarily of overweight, older men, and a smattering of hot babes, topless with painted tits and fleecy legwarmers, riding by on decorated bicycles. As for sex, although there was sexual energy in the air, I’m afraid that the “hot & sweaty” nature of the event was not the good kind of hot & sweaty. It was the malodorous and covered with grit and sand kind. Sure, you could hook up, but it was more likely to exchange deep penetrating thoughts than deep penetrating sex.

Finally, there’s magic at Burning Man. It took a while, but I finally realized that they designed it as a pentagram for a reason. The goal was to create a place of power, of magic, of transformation, of lucky coincidence. People all around me were mentioning it. “Oh wow, that’s weird, I was just thinking about you!” Or the fellow who had his bike stolen, and then obsessed about getting even, so he steals a bike, late at night. He had never stolen anything before, so he was wracked with adrenaline. Then he discovers… he’d stolen his own bike back! Man, what are the karmic forces trying to teach this guy? For me, the magic was having my camera crap out on me. Or more accurately, the digital memory card suffered a technical glitch, allowing me to take only 25 pictures. But the amazing thing was that this limitation forced me to decide what images were worth remembering. So I didn’t take pictures of everything I could, I took pictures of what really meant something to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love taking photographs, but this little glitch was actually a miracle, because it forced me to stop hiding behind the lens, and to fully experience and participate in this wonderous once in a lifetime happening. Yes, it’s magic.

Will I return to Burning Man 2007? Well, let’s just say that I’m already thinking about how to fix up my crappiest bike up so it lights up like a football fish (you know, the deep sea fish with a light lure coming out of its head?), and already buying camping supplies for next year… a larger tent, better sleeping bag, and… tada!… a tent fan! I’m sure I’ll start feeling the burner itch next spring, trying to think up the art project to end all art projects.

Anyway, I could write for a month about everything that occurred to me as a result of being at Burning Man, which is what I hear is called "the Burning Man decompression effect". Instead, I thought I’d provide the following suggestion to the reader who has never been to Burning Man, but is tempted to go… Here it is…

Here it is…

Just go.

Don’t think about it anymore.

Just go.

Yeah, trust me on this.

Just go.

© 2007 Moses Ma. All Rights Reserved.