Mention the Burning Man festival, held each August in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, and watch grown men grow as sparkly-eyed and animated as tots on Christmas morning.
"It made it clear to me that just about anything is possible," says Atlanta artist Zach Coffin, recalling his first Burning Man festival. "I encountered people there that were so nice, so smart, so energetic and so good at what they did, it made me say, 'I better not rest on my laurels. I better get busy.'"
Coffin and a small group of local artists are getting busy. They are staging their own version of the festival in Atlanta called Ripe, which coincides with a lecture by Burning Man founder, 55-year-old Larry Harvey, who will speak May 1 at the Rich Auditorium.
Ripe is a collaborative venture scheduled for the evening of May 2, and spearheaded by Coffin, Charlie Smith, Grady Cousins, Jeffry Loy, Paul Jorgensen and Keith Helfrich, many of whom have studios at the Candler-Smith Historic Warehouse District and the B-Complex on Murphy Avenue, both in the West End. All six have attended Burning Man for years, both as participants and artists.
Four of the Ripe members recently convened at the Candler-Smith Historic Warehouse District on the wind-whipped West End hillside home to the City View Sculpture Park. Between sporadic interruptions by police sirens and passing freight trains, they discussed their vision for Ripe in this industrial nook bordered by train yards and discount meat stores. It's also home to one of the most fertile art districts in the city.
Burning Man is described as a phenomenon, a philosophy and a lifestyle. Every summer a temporary city of some 30,000 people convene for one week in the desert for the event. They camp, make art projects, avoid sandstorms, get as naked as a night at the Cheetah, meet fellow participants and engage in what Harvey calls acts of "radical self-expression."
Harvey is appearing in Atlanta courtesy of Art Papers, but it was local fire sculptor and Ripe co-organizer Charlie Smith who first suggested the magazine bring Harvey to Atlanta.
"I was just floored," Smith says about his first time at Burning Man in 1998. "I couldn't believe there was so much energy there."
The all-night Ripe event will, if all goes according to plan, distill that energy in a more concentrated local form while featuring circus acts, puppet shows, fire spinners, film screenings, performance art and the kind of fire sculptures that form the centerpiece of every Burning Man. "We really want to bombard people with art," says co-organizer Helfrich of the eclectic offerings that will serve as a crash course in the Burning Man concept, which is purposely presented outside the usual art-world economy.
That desire to step outside the white box gallery is a goal for Harvey, who notes the irony of an art world dominated by so much inside-the-box thinking.
"The making of art appears to have become an adjunct of the high fashion industry," Harvey complains. "Biennials look like trade shows, and the constituency they serve is a kind of managerial elite: dealers, curators, academics, agents and arts administrators. This is the audience that art is manufactured for," states Harvey via e-mail.
"Marketing and management now stand between creators and their audience. Burning Man is an attempt to detour round this middle ground, to disintermediate the relationship. We reunite the public with the artist and we create a new kind of environment for the production of art."
Recognizing an absence of any unifying traditions or beliefs in the fractured postmodern world, Harvey created Burning Man as an alternative. The event is now in its 17th year and currently operates with a budget of $6 million. The theme this year is "Beyond Belief," and it takes place Aug. 25-Sept. 1.
Harvey says Burning Man has also extended its borders beyond one week in the desert, as events like Ripe testify. "It is more than an event. It has become a movement. Over the years, people have returned home and discovered that they are no longer willing to accept the world as it is given to them," says Harvey.
For information about Harvey's visit, call 404-588-1837, ext. 21. For information on Ripe, call 404-752-6410 or visit www.ripeatlanta.com.
For Art's Sake is a bi-weekly column covering the local art scene.
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