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The Unity at Burning Man

A pilgrimage happens once a year, one where tens of thousands gather to celebrate art, rediscovered culture, the purifying act of burning worldly symbolic structures, with music in the background and overall acceptance all round. More than

A pilgrimage happens once a year, one where tens of thousands gather to celebrate art, rediscovered culture, the purifying act of burning worldly symbolic structures, with music in the background and overall acceptance all round.

More than twenty years ago a group of hippies gathered around an effigy at Baker Street in San Francisco and watched it burn. From this act, the domino effect of celebrating acceptance and love in all forms was born. This year 70,000 travelled to take part in this burning celebration amongst camps and caravans, bonfires and musical concerts and art instillations. The camp shifted from California to Black Rock Desert, a two-hour drive from Reno, Nevada, a more isolated spot where the police authorities would not hassle them about unlicensed pyrotechnics, open fires, alcohol, and a whole lot of hippies gathered together.

“I was a little apprehensive about near encounters with earnest, granola-crunching tree-huggers”

I was a little apprehensive about near encounters with earnest, granola-crunching tree-huggers. I had packed the bare essentials and was lucky as I had a private jet to transport me to the middle of the desert, where we were huddled like refugees standing in line until we got the glorious fluorescent stamp on our wrist that we were allowed into heavens gates, to a dusty playa of hundreds and hundreds of camps, caravans and art cars shaped like ships, dragons, dogs, animals with music filling the air. There were people dressed in swimsuits but there was no beach, half-naked in furs and glitter, with the most original and one of a kind costumes I had ever seen. Overall the weather was sunny, but dusty, windy. There was even a Hug Booth which gave delightful hugs for a payment of two compliments from happy customers.

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Surreal was the ambience, and the tagline there was teamwork and family. Everyone was required to bring something to the playa. It operated like a real city with bars, clubs, restaurants, theatres, yoga clubs and everyone was an adult that was required to act responsibly firstly with the Burners and the Environment. There was to be no MOOP (Matter Out of Place- garbage) left behind. Governed by the spiritual belief to leave no trace behind, and leave the playa as untouched and unchanged as possible, fellow burners follow diligently and take cleaning up seriously. After all, we were amongst educated people that cared about humans, nature and the future of generations to come. So everyday people would clean up, and burn what they could and share with their camp group what interesting encounters they have been in, art they have discovered.

Attendees of the camps included billionaires, princesses, entrepreneurs, doctors, artists, architects – many of the educated and cultured and well-travelled of today’s society flocked to where they could share their genius or relax amongst fellow burners and pioneers. Famous burners included Princess Beatrice, Katie Perry, Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, Susan Sarandon, Mark Zuckerberg, Diddy, Dustin Moskovitz, Paris Hilton, Will Smith and many others who went incognito.  I was lucky enough to meet quite a few actually, but too frozen to interact properly with any of them under my jackets, robes, scarves and goggles. And yet I had a wonderful time being young, free and wild. The weather restrictions have not stopped Burning Man from being one of the most modern costume shows outside of Halloween for adults. There were aliens, spacesuits, disco-gear, outrageous outfits, feathers, glitter, men in tutus and wedding dresses, women in exotic bikinis and the odd nude or two. Everyone there played a part in the art scene.

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At the festival, participants escape society, its demands and the most liberating element was the cellphone service there was dead. Forcing you to communicate with one another face to face, as opposed to being glued to a mobile screen half the day. We all came together to build art together, and then sit around it and watch it burn down. Everything had to go; burn, or be reinstalled at an art gallery somewhere else. This culture has been going on for 30 years and is going stronger every year.

“It’s a place where you can do whatever you want and not feel like, ‘Why is that woman’s side of her head shaved?’ or, ‘Why is that person’s hair blue?’ ” said Joe Carter, 35, a musician and a longtime Burner who favours his custom leather suits in the style of Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. “None of that matters over here. The societal norms melt away, and inhibitions melt away.”

In this celebration of sacred art and community, people come together to dance, co-create and enjoy the company of one another. An ultimate convergence of visionary art, healing yoga, spirituality, nutrition, fashion, dance-culture and electronic music. Those that appreciate the higher things in life understand why this gathering acted like the Mecca for these souls. It was a heart and mind oasis as many would say, which gathered the majority of white Americans primarily, Latin Americans, Australians and Europeans. They were born from the amalgamation of the main stream rave culture, TED-talks, yoga’s and YOLOs who spread its’ seeds over the social media.

Us, nouveau hippies, the grandchildren of the Woodstock generation basked at the glory of the beautiful symbolic art and architecture that made us smile and cry. The Temple of Promise at Burning Man was everyone’s’ favorite tribute to it. Where the large high structure carried the carved and written names of passed loved ones that have died in the past year. People would think of them as the temple goes up in flames on Sunday night, the night before last.

“People are transformed every year, not by numbers but by how nice people are to one another”

Strolling passed the frontal entrance of the temple, which reminded me of the Star Trek insignia of a giant V upside down, the walls were heavily marked with names, confessions, letters of longing, broken hearts, things that needed to be said, unheard pangs of the heart and silenced cries that have found their vessel of containment. This modern airy copy of a high Gothic cathedral was shaped rather peculiarly, circling like a snail and shrinking into an Alice in Wonderland depiction of concentrating after everyone’s pain of our turn to confess, to realize our own weakness, failures or simply feel others’ pain and weep at the beauty of this allowed release. Why not? It was celebrated to self-express your feelings, unjudged, unbiased and freely. There amongst the ones crying softly or wailing loudly, I prayed for the souls that have left us, and the ones struggling today with us.

Another grand temple at this desert was Totem of Confessions. A gothic, baroque and nightmarish edifice designed by Michael Garlington. Gold trim, strong religious catholic symbols, skulls, a confession box heavily decorated as the cherry on the top to this magnificent structure. Churches have always intrigued me with their beautiful architecture, grotesque gargoyles and icy walls.  There were baboons, hippos and toucans decorated al over this church made of wood. I almost felt sorry that it would burn soon. This was a statement of freedom I heard, in the eyes of beauty, and it was to burn the same day as the man.

The tallest structure was of this man like structure called Burning Man. He would burn on the very last day officially declaring the end of the festival. This temporary home of art structures, art cars and artsy people would end as the exodus begins.

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Driving away in my art car, I stopped to enjoy a 59 feet long, 18 feet wide and 24 feet high wire structure. Milov, titled Love, costing a staggering $65,000, constructed it.  It was two humans; a man and a woman with their backs towards each other and inside of them were two plastic babies touching each other’s hands. At night the babies would be alight, and this sculpture was articulated to show people that despite our differences, deep inside we all yearn for the same thing- love. The sculpture was called love.  ‘As it’s getting dark (night falls) the children start to shine. This shining is a symbol of purity and sincerity that brings people together and gives a chance of making up when the dark time arrives,’ Milov explained.

People are transformed every year, not by numbers but by how nice people are to one another over there. The world needs more of that, perhaps with less tie-dye and patchouli though. It was the Hollywood see and be seen scene of the time. I enjoyed the hippie scene of living healthy, meditating yoga, the loud music and the cloudless sunny skies without the heat albeit in the middle of the summer. For the virgins and veterans of the Burning Man community, thank you for all the love and I look forward to returning next year.

In the bucket list of things to do before you die, this is one of the experiences that resonate the loudest. Please be advised that there are no children at the playa or baby sitters. Although I spotted a baby and 2 children there, it is not their right places because it is not a child’s environment, as they would not enjoy it as much as a mature adult would.  Everyone is expected to contribute with art, voluntary work and positive contribution within the camp community and the playa as a whole. Tickets go from $390 and have said to be sold for as much as $1000 in the black market. Staying in a caravan can cost you another $1000, and if you go on your own pocket- it can cost up to $1,568 for 10 days (Tickets, water, camp supplies, costume, groceries, bicycle, camp dues, transport, flight and hotel).

by Sheikha Hend F Al Qassimi

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