The Magic of Night
By jonathan schork (photos by jonathan schork)
Like most cities, Burning Man’s Black Rock City, in the heart of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, is really several cities, distinguished from each other depending upon the time of day, which influences everything from the light and heat to the people you meet, and as with most cities, you learn the characters of this one slowly.
The City at sunrise, with its few weary late-night stragglers stumbling home after the parties have ended, and its few early risers eagerly emerging to salute the sun with a jog around the playa, is hush and somnolent. The music at this hour, which wafts over the City like an early call to prayer, is ethereal and gentle-- ephemeral qualities here that will not last long: perhaps it is a suite of Bach cello solos played languidly by Janigro, lulling most of us to sleep if we haven’t already been there, and if we have, intruding furtively to remind us to stay there a while longer. The scents of breakfast travel on the breeze as well, unaccompanied by the dust that will color the aroma of later meals. Like twilight elsewhere, sunrise here is at time of peace.
The City in the afternoon is a different City entirely: a busy, noisy bazaar of thirty-five thousand people, they go about the routines of their daily lives, but unlike such routines elsewhere, here that means repairing tents, hauling home ice from center-camp or one of the far-flung plazas, as our forebears did a hundred years ago, when an icebox was just that. We stop at the camp of a friend to see if he’s “at home,” take a stroll past the public artworks that decorate like Christmas tree ornaments our mile-wide public park-- sculptures so numerous you can’t even see them all. As the sun bakes our streets, we might put in at one of the neighborhood bars for a cocktail. It is a spectacle of activity.
But like other cities, this one really comes alive at night: Burning Man is most vivid after the sun has left us. The lights at night turn the City from a dusty village into a swirling rainbow of color, constantly shifting, sending its aura into the dark with a brilliance that can be seen from space: a sudden, unexpected star where none has been before in an empty corner of the cosmos, an epicenter of magic that has drawn us all into its orbit.
Sculptures lovely but inert during the day are transfigured by fire and light into kaleidoscopic beacons that guide us through the flat, measureless plain of dry lakebed. The Man, sixty feet tall, towers brilliantly in the middle of everything-- the apex of the city, waiting for his appointment with fire, when he will leave us for another year. It feels as if he is watching over us, a benevolent sentry, but in fact we watch over each other, stranger for stranger. The Flaming Lotus Girls (www.flaminglotus.com) have given us Soma, a steel ganglion fifteen feet tall, thirty feet long, inspired by the neuron: it’s twinkling LEDs and spinning balls of fire mimic our own thought-processes, a living, Brobdingnagian organ.
Another Brobdingnagian sculpture-- Ecstasy, by San Francisco artists Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito (headlesspoint.com)-- towers over the Esplanade holding fire in her giant hands. At 37’ tall, she is visible from anywhere on the playa, disappearing only when a cloud of wind-born dust envelops her. Like many of us, she is a return visitor to the City: she was here in 2007 as part of a massive installation called Crude Awakenings. This year she stands alone, dancing silently to her own unknown muse. I am here this year on assignment for DISfunkshion magazine, writing a feature called the Burning Woman; this sculpture feels like the emblem of my theme.
The mutant cars-- elaborately got up in their outsized costumes-- prowl the streets and the wide open playa inviting revelers to join the party: each vehicle, some the size of two city-buses, comes with its unique light signature, its thumping musical repertoire, and a swaying crowd of people in love with the moment. Like an informal, psychedelic public transportation system, the cars stop now and again to disgorge a clump of characters in their own costumes, eager to seek the next stop.
That next stop might be one of the many diners and restaurants that dot the City and fill the dusty air with the rich, savory palette of desert cuisine. Even the most simple fare-- a grilled cheese sandwich with American cheese-- something we might scorn in the regular world-- becomes an oasis of taste here: the Black Rock Diner (www.blackrockdiner.com)-- as transient as the rest of us-- is never at the same address two years in a row, but it serves the masses from 11pm nightly. The White Dragon Noodle Bar (www.wdnb.org) serves ramen that seems like the best I’ve ever eaten, and a sumo wrestling match for contenders whose victory in the ring will promote them to the front of the queue.
A camp of Quebecois-- Midnight Poutine-- have brought us their national dish: a delicious concoction of French fried potatoes, cheese curds, and gravy-- we stand in line for an hour for a small tray, but it is worth it, not only because the food is so much more here in our dusty City, but because we spend the time with people we love, or meet new people we will. Tia’s Quesadillas offers a special challenge to the Burning Man gourmand: if you want a sample from their fully mobile kitchen, you have to be lucky enough to find it as it moves from place to place without notice or even, seemingly, a plan. The scent of the quesadillas is your only clue: follow your nose.
The tailings of a sand storm might drive us into a club we’ve never visited before, and finding there new friends we stay for hours. Night is the time of music at Burning Man, and dancing, and parties: every flavor is represented here. The Hookah Dome plays something like oriental trace music one night: I stay until sunrise. The Opulent Temple (www.opulenttemple.org), in our boondocks, so to speak, is a crowd favorite, hosting everything from drum circles to up-and-coming talent that draws crowds far beyond its capacity; but people come and go, and sooner or later everyone gets a chance to dance. A rumor of a live performance by def punk has swept the City: an impenetrable clot of enthusiastic fans descend on the rumored address, and when it turns out they’ve been the subject of a practical joke, they dance anyhow.
My favorite club this year is part old west/scifi saloon, part Ray Bradbury circus: the Mystikal Misfits-- a Los Angeles-based theme camp run by Terry Pratt & John Pedone, offers a cavernous interior, erected on a huge armature of scaffolding, with cozy, couch-filled alcoves around the perimeter of the dance floor, a dj at one end, and a truly funky, eclectic long-bar at the other. I see in this club a movie set. It is here one night that I meet the Ruiner-- when she is finished with me, she takes an ink stamp out of her pocket, imprints my right cheek with her nom-de-guerre, and makes a photograph of me for her scrap-book. Not a drinker, I am nonetheless pleasantly surprised by the flavor of a cocktail one of the barmen has mixed me; but it’s identity will remain a secret: the barman has disappeared, and, like another wee bit of Burning Man magic, I must accept the mystery of this drink.
I save the Temple for last I suppose in part because Burning Man saves the Temple for last: it will burn Sunday night and herald the end of our time here. David Umlas and Marrilee Radcliffe (communityartmakers.com) have brought us Fire of Fires, and like most of the Temple installations at Burning Man, this is a solemn home for our collective dead. Inspired by eastern orthodox religious architecture (with an unique spin: this onion dome is opening like a blooming flower), with three tiers each feeding into the next on ramps spiraling gently counterclockwise, every square inch of wood that can be reached by human hands is covered with notes to our dead and our lost: the Temple is a mausoleum for our grief.
A girl whose mother died when she was a little girl has left a message here for all to read. Courageously baring her innermost feeling to us, she shows us, “This is my mother; she is real; I want to share her with you.” The people who are with me cry; I do not: I have shed my tears here before, and will keep them to myself from now on. The burning Temple spawns little smoke-devils that spin off into the desert-- our ghosts free at last racing jubilantly into the night.
In the morning the sun will rise, erasing the magic of the dark, and in a few hours our temporary City will disappear back into the dust whence it sprang, waiting for us to return again. It is another expression of magic that so many of us will.