The World of Burning Man at the Cincinnati Art Museum

Imagine living in a post-apocalyptic desert á la Mad Max, but instead of spending your time embroiled in constant warfare over territories and resources, everyone pools their collective energy toward creating an expansive, inclusive city that welcomes people of all stripes. You would be experiencing Burning Man’s Black Rock City.


The Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) is hosting a very special exhibit this summer which showcases the world of Burning Man: No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man.    

Burning Man is an annual, week-long art convergence that takes place in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The event draws nearly 70,000 “burners” each year to come take part in the festivities. During this event, a temporary metropolis, known as Black Rock City, is erected upon the dusty desert land. This transient city is comprised of elaborate art instillations and the famous “burning man” which hulks over it all. These structures come in many shapes and sizes, but the resulting city is a behemoth to behold. Other forms of art are also welcome and encouraged at Burning Man, whether it be performance art, jewelry-making, or anything artistically inclined. At the end of the event, many of the art pieces are burnt to the ground and returned to dust as a part of their “leave no trace” practice. Pieces that have survived this event are featured as a part of this free exhibit, which was first created to be displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC.   

Gigantic glowing mushrooms

There are no real rules at Burning Man; they base their practices off of 10 Principles:

  1. Radical inclusion
  2. Gifting 
  3. Decommodification  
  4. Radical self-reliance  
  5. Radial self-expression  
  6. Communal effort  
  7. Civic responsibility  
  8. Leaving no trace  
  9. Participation  
  10. Immediacy  

These principles exist with the goal to create an environment that includes everyone in the festivities, promotes intense, unbridled creativity, and vanishes at the conclusion of the event; anyone who promises to live by these principles is considered a “burner”.    

CAM’s exhibit brings interactive examples of work that has been created during Burning Man. These instillations can be found throughout the entire museum; if you have been here before, you will find it to be a completely different environment while this exhibit is here. As you enter the museum, you symbolically join the world of Burning Man when you pass underneath a giant paper arch – a structure that is easily burnt – made of intricate, ornate designs.   

A child writing in chalk on the "Before I die I want to...." wall.

As you explore the museum, you will find that each room houses a different world. Gigantic, glowing mushrooms fill a luminescent room that once was occupied by ancient pottery; elaborate gowns with exotic headdresses adorn a balcony overlooking the main entrance; walls of another room are covered with chalkboards where people are invited to respond to the prompt “Before I die I want to _______”. This is not just a collaboration between the artists who created the work; you are invited to join in the creation as well. 


Perhaps the most visually arresting room is the one filled with geometric frame-structures that are lit from the inside, created by the artist duo HYBYCOZO (an acronym for Hyperspace Bypass Construction Zone; a reference to sci-fi novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). The hard edges of the frames are contrasted by the soft, spectacular illuminations that spread across the walls around them; the 3D shapes effectively create 2D patterns. This is a room that inspires contemplation. 

UC’s community was encouraged to contribute to this exhibit by creating one of the pieces most central to Burning Man; DAAP’s associate professor Samantha Krukowski led her students in creating the Temple. The piece, known as InVasive, is an impressive structure made entirely of the widespread, invasive honeysuckle that can be found throughout Cincinnati. This piece takes something that threatens the balance of the local ecosystem and uses it to create something beautiful in its place. People who enter the temple are encouraged to add onto it, whether it be more honeysuckle or notes, but keeping with the spirit of Burning Man, there is a plan to engulf the temple in flames at the conclusion of the exhibit.

One of the HYBOCOZO pieces with a child walking in front of it to show its size.

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man will be on display until September 2nd, as the proper Burning Man event in the desert comes to a close. Be sure not to miss it, because once the exhibit is gone, it will leave no trace. 

Written by Chris Pasion, graduate assistant of The Graduate School.