The desert, the crowds, the art, and fire – the annual Festival draws me like a magnet, yet I’ve never gone. Building in scope and power since 1986, over 70,000 people trek into the desert each year to breathe life into a temporary utopian ideal. Many more of us harbor the same spark of rebellion and creativity but have never attended or ever will. The Renwick Gallery, No Spectators exhibit, a wide-ranging Burning Man art installation, offers another way to get into the festival spirit.

Burning Man over the years

As the live event winds down, I wait for the costumes and fantastic images of each Burning Man Art Installation to emerge online. Imagine my excitement and the serendipity of being in Washington DC shortly after the Burning Man Art Installation, No Spectators, opened in the Smithsonian-allied, Renwick Gallery. It’s moving onto other cities in the US:
Cincinnati Art Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio (April 26, 2019–September 2, 2019)
Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, California (October 12, 2019–February 16, 2020)

Desert Temple by Ванка5 at the Bulgarian language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Most Washington visitors head out to see the White House and tour the monuments but on my first morning in DC, I was on a mission to find that gallery. The Renwick building is a National Historic Landmark and the first built expressly as an art museum in the United States. It’s considered one of the first and finest examples of Second Empire architecture in America. The gallery is also home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s program of contemporary craft and decorative arts. A bit lofty for Burning Man but I guess he’s arrived.

Rock City Aerial – Kyle Harmon, Wikicommons

I walked up the steps of the classic building and into a visionary daydream as the entire austere gallery was relinquished to Burning Man culture. It was also a far cry from the immersion that the Festival must be. This was a heady transfer from desert mayhem into high art.

Paper Arch by Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti inside the Renwick Gallery

Still, it was thrilling to walk through, recline, listen and sit in the various spaces. Each room led to another set of experiences all drawn from the decades of Burning Man art installations in the desert and several created specifically for this space.

Playing with Scale

At the entrance of the exhibit, visitors pass through a tall arch. The surface is covered in paper cutouts and embellished with paint. Paper is an ephemeral medium for a sculpture. It’s mind-boggling to realize that while the arch fills the gallery room it’s a small part of the original piece. Look to the lower left in the picture below and you’ll get an idea of what I mean about the scale of that desert creation.

Paper Arch creators from the Renwick exhibit, No Spectators

Beyond the arch rose a luminous figure. Imagine her standing several stories high in the middle of a desert plain! This replica was mesmerizing and in a world of #MeToo moments and a time when truth can be evasive, it’s poignant that the artist, Marco Cochrane, called a soaring woman’s figure, ‘Truth is Beauty.’

Truth is Beauty by Marco Cochrane

What to wear

The desert demands attention. Surviving dust storms, intense heat, and chilly nights while navigating through a temporary city can crimp one’s style. Still, each year Rock City citizens outdo each other with their finery. Their whimsy flourishes too.

Dust storm photo by Brocken Inaglory – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0


Determined to create a sensory experience, the show’s curators commissioned replicas of several desert pieces. They also encouraged Burning Man artists to create for the gallery dimensions. Thus David Best’s, Temple filled a vast, rectangular room and a sign at the entrance asked:

This Temple

Is a sacred place for memorial and reflection. Its intention is to bring healing to the world and it was built by many hands – all who had lost something. Many places exist for celebration, but few places are created to honor the universal human experience of grieving and loss. This is such a place. Please respect it for its solemn purpose. If you wish to leave a memorial or testament meaningful to you, please write on the blocks of wood provided.

Detail inside David Best’s Temple


The show is not all serious and high falutin’. There were morphing giant Mushrooms! A dragon cart embellished in cake tins and eye wheel to spin. (See it all in the video below) A movable movie theater showed a nuevo-retro, who-done-it and one room was illuminated by an electronic star which morphed above our heads as we lay on round pillows.


…”Devote themselves to the gloriously useless. Not unlike makers, they like to play for the sheer pleasure of seeing what will happen.” – Richard Polt

The best of sound, light and robotic technology flowed through the spaces. I can only imagine how magical they must’ve been in the desert.

The elephant missing in the Burning Man Art Installation

Perhaps all was too distracting but I didn’t feel like I’d met the Man in the exhibit. Perhaps that was intentional as he’s purposefully cryptic. According to the Burning Man organization:

The Man

…”Represents nothing expressed or explicable, yet it is a physical and ethical guidepost during at least one week of the year.”(excerpted from the Renwick show.)

I guess I’ll just have to go to Rock City to meet him and see for myself.

Here’s a video about the Renwick Gallery show:


No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man

The exhibit is traveling to other locations in the United States:
Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC (March 30, 2018–January 21, 2019)
Cincinnati Art Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio (April 26, 2019–September 2, 2019)
Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, California (October 12, 2019–February 16, 2020)
Burning Man Desert Festival 
The festival website has maps, plans, and directions.
Have you been to Burning Man or this show? I’d love to know about your experience. Leave a comment below.

Travel Notes & Beyond