It was 2007. Sophia Swire had worked as a financier in London, set up job training programs in war zones, reported for the BBC World Service, and produced television news. But she’d never heard of Burning Man.
One day, she saw a photograph of a sculpture on the playa—two huge tanker trucks, arched high into the air, interacting as if they were dancers.
“It was the most extraordinary thing I’d ever seen,” Swire said in a phone interview.
The event gates would open in a few days, and Swire, who splits her time between her native England and California, happened to be in the Palm Desert with time to spare. She packed an old mattress and some water bottles into a truck and drove 18 hours to the Black Rock Desert. She showed up in what she called “the equivalent of twinset and pearls,” but a friend set her straight on the importance of costuming.
“She dragged me off to her tent and gave me a silver bikini and an orange wig and sprayed me in chocolate cocoa powder,” Swire recounted. Fast forward 13 years. She is now the producer of the documentary film Art on Fire, a tribute to the artwork of Burning Man.
“I feel it should be recognized as a movement in its own right,” Swire said. “It’s distinct from any other art movement that’s come before it, in that it is participatory. It’s not really something that works so well in a museum environment. It really is designed to be climbed over and to be interacted with, not really stared at.”
The film follows the two largest art projects of Burning Man 2018—Arthur Mamou-Mani’s Temple Galaxia and Andrew Johnstone’s The Man—all the way from Mamou-Mani’s London architectural studio to Johnstone’s Oakland warehouse, to the final close-ups of the artists’ faces, teary and overwhelmed, as they watch their creations go up in bonfires.
Along the way, you’ll see the cracked, empty playa fill up with the volunteers who deal with the logistics behind all of the bacchanal. Mamou-Mani gives grateful, upbeat pep talks to his crew. Johnstone—when he’s not overseeing building machines, neon tubes, and mountains of plywood—plays bagpipes in a kilt. (He’s Scottish.) Surveyors, crane operators, and a camp chef do their respective things. Mamou-Mani and his bride, Sandy Kwan, get group-hugged at their wedding in the freshly-built, soon-to-burn temple.
The film also follows six other artists as they install their work, including Reno’s Peter Hazel, who talks about his giant steel and glass jellyfish, including a 2017 failure and the 2018 re-do, with his usual refreshing candor.
Nevada readers, keep an eye out for more locals: Reno’s Lauren Hufft conducts an emotional welcome ceremony. Temple volunteers cut lumber at the Generator in Sparks. Quick glimpses of locally made artworks include a storybook house atop giant metal chicken legs by Reno’s Jesse “Sprocket” Janusee, Elko artist Barry Crawford’s kinetic “Rearing Horse,” (now installed in downtown Reno), a fiery collision of two life-sized wooden train engines by Reno’s Jeremy Evans, and South Lake Tahoe sculptor Kelly Smith Cassidy’s robotic metal goddess.
The filmmakers reveal a generous eyeful of the dazzling chaos that surround the main characters—miles of blinky lights, art cars, and fire dancers. And they let the reality of the outside world seep into this fantasyland, including the deaths of friends and icons, including event founder Larry Harvey died earlier that year, and some of the touching tributes that followed.
Swire said the film crew shot more hours of footage than they can tally up at this point, and they borrowed drone and hyperlapse footage from photographers they met on the playa. Director Gerry Fox—a South African with at least a dozen documentaries to his name, including a BBC show on American video art giant Bill Viola—decided to present the intertwining stories in a swift, disciplined 90 minutes of short cuts that avoids the all-too-easy trap of, well, us Burners rambling on too long about what it all means.
“It was very important for us that the film should be accessible to people who were not Burners,” Swire said. “I very much wanted the film to bring Burning Man into the homes of people who have not had the freedom or the time or the resources to travel all the way to the Nevada desert. … I was making it to try and bring alive a movement and an experience for people who are not already attached or convinced.”
As a person who’s enjoyed a heary slurp of this cult’s Kool-Aid, my observation is that the film will resonate with Burners, too. This year, we’re skipping the usual August rituals—negotiationg a week off work, packing busfuls of sparkly shorts and blinky lights, putting in late-night shifts on our friends’ playa projects—and that leaves a lot of us thirsty for a glimpse of this weird, thrilling, handmade world we like to go create each year. To me, the film feels like a postcard from home.
Art on Fire premieres this weekend on Kindling, an online event hub that exists in lieu of this year’s canceled event. Two showings are scheduled, one timed for convenient viewing on the West Coast, one for viewers in or near the U.K.
Saturday, Aug. 15, 6:00-7:30pm PDT; 9:00-10:30pm EDT; 2:00-3:30am BST
Sunday, Aug. 16, 9:00-10:30am PDT; 12:00-1:30pm EDT; 5:00-6:30pm BST
The 2:15 presentation includes the 90-minute film and a Q&A with the filmmakers.
To purchase tickets, suggested price $15 visit Kindling.
All photos on this page courtesy of the filmmakers.