How Burning Man has grown. What began in 1986 as a sort of fringe ritual among friends on a San Francisco beach has exploded over the last three-plus decades, expanding from a counterculture festival to a pop-culture phenomenon that attracts nearly 80,000 people, including a slice of the tech elite and, of course, lots of Instagrammers.
And it’s long since entered the bloodstream of Las Vegas. The Park at Park MGM features “Bliss Dance,” the sculpture of a female form that debuted at the desert festival. Burning Man hosted the fire-breathing mantis before Tony Hsieh bought it for Container Park. “Big Rig Jig” at Fergusons Downtown made its debut at Burning Man in 2007. Whatever this says about the curious relationship between counterculture and capitalism, it makes a certain strange sense: For better or worse, Vegas depends on leveraging artistic expression as part of the consumer experience. We excel at turning art into an appendage of commerce.
But how do you keep art from becoming the mere decor of industrial consumerism? That brings us to AREA 15’s Art Island, which opened for a small media preview last week. Located in the northwest elbow of Desert Inn and Rancho, AREA 15 is tech-enhanced, art-drenched retail/entertainment complex set to open in September. It’ll feature bars, eateries, shops, and live events. Art Island is its promenade at the south end, a collection of towering and sprawling sculptures largely culled from or inspired by Burning Man. They’re big, beautiful, and for sale.
Joshua Levine, curator and artistic director of Art Island, might be the perfect person to oversee this transfer of festival art to the entrance of a retail megaplex. He’s a veteran burner himself, as perhaps evidenced by his penchant for bright clothes and mad-scientist hair.
“Having been going to Burning Man for 20 years, I feel like I’m a translator for the culture, who tries to keep that energy, tone, and vibe, and to make sure we’re doing it in the right way,” he says. “If we don’t, it’ll be bastardized and exploited.” That’s not to say Levine subscribes to any hardcore notions of artistic purity, a difficult virtue to maintain when anything blows up. “Burning Man used to be fringe, and it’s not anymore. And that’s okay. They did the Burning Man exhibit at Smithsonian for a year, and that really was a kind of commercial experience of them coming out, which I appreciate, because we’ve all done it for so long. You can’t keep this hidden.” Sure, the hypercommercial context of Vegas may alter the meaning and import of Burning Man art, but its presence here, Levine says, can also start conversations about the event’s philosophical underpinnings and famous Ten Principles, which include radical inclusion, decommodification, and civic responsibility. Art Island seeks to be a place where burner ethos and “Vegas, baby!” bodaciousness align.
The sculptures themselves range from inspired to whimsical to apocalyptic. There’s Michael Benisty’s “In Every Lifetime I Will Find You" (right), a 14-foot-tall sculpture of two embracing forms in startlingly seamless mirrored, polished steel. “Mechan 9,” by Tyler Fuqua Creations, is wry steampunk, a rusting cartoon robot sprawled on the ground, seemingly sinking into the earth. And step into the shipping container that is Infinity Ship (No. 1) “Perception” by Matt Elson to see yourself accordioned into a spectrum of alternate but identical selves. The art is all for sale — think urban planners and commercial developers with a taste for the outré — but the sculpture park itself presents as a place of appreciative contemplation. (And, in some cases, appreciative touching and climbing.)
For his part, Michael Beneville (left), AREA 15’s founding partner and chief creative officer, chooses to cut right through the whole art vs. commerce Gordian Knot. When does art become a mere commercial design element? Echoing the Burning Man philosophy that aims to balance individual experience with communal effort, he says that question is entirely up to visitors.
“We’re not fighting the fight of whether this is art,” he says. “We let the public decide what pleases them. This is not a conversation about the merits or the value of it or the the evolution of it. I think it’s a new conversation. And it’s a new category. Maybe it’s always been there, but we really believe that this category of large-scale, monumental festival art, which is really made under extraordinary circumstances — often, absolutely from the heart of the artist, without great resources, without all of those things — deserves a place in the canon and in the conversation.”
Visitors will be invited to join that conversation later this fall — and if they want to snap a few sculpture selfies for the ’Gram, that’s perfectly fine too.
Art Island will be free to visit when AREA 15 opens in September.