Radical self-expression, cake & spirituality: Larry Harvey sketches Burning Man 2017 in Penang’s famous patisserie

Every year, thousands of people head to the Nevada desert in the US to watch a giant effigy burn spectacularly with fireworks and pyrotechnics, a reenactment of a winter solstice burning ritual much like Indians burning effigies of Ravana on Dusshera.

While Dusshera celebrates the victory of good over evil, the Burning Man Festival is an iconic arts event, believed to be the world’s largest interactive art exhibition, where thousands of people make and experience art while surviving in the harsh desert conditions with their own supplies and the charity of fellow ‘Burners’.

A temporary city, Black Rock City, comes up in the desert for the duration of the festival and disappears completely soon after the event. Looking for an experience of a lifetime, about 70,000 ‘Burners’, as the festivalgoers are called, participate to enjoy the 10 Burning Man principles at play – radical self-expression, radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy.

No commerce is allowed, and Burners ‘gift’ each other art, food and other necessities to survive. The festival attracts everyone from hippies to Silicon Valley magnates and its phenomenal success is evident from its ticket sales this year – 30,000 tickets for the main shows were sold out within 30 minutes of going online. For a taste of what it’s really like, check this out.

I got a wonderful opportunity to meet the co-founder of the festival, Larry Harvey, when he was in Penang to attend the George Town Festival – a month-long arts & culture festival that celebrates community and heritage along with mind-blowing international cultural performances.


Rithy Panh, GTF director Joe Sidek and Larry Harvey at GTF 2016

Larry was a part of a talk titled ‘Stories, Humanity and What About the Arts?’ along with renowned Cambodian director Rithy Panh. The talk was a revelation, in terms of how two different personalities from vastly different worlds use human figures to give out seemingly different messages. Check out Rithy Panh’s work here.

I didn’t get to speak with Larry then, but was lucky enough to catch him at an unguarded moment at ChinaHouse – Penang’s most famous patisserie. ChinaHouse serves some of the yummiest cakes on the island and encourages visitors to explore the artist within while they satisfy their sugar cravings. Giant drawing sheets cover the tables and crayons are handy to doodle your favourite superhero or cat.


Patrons at ChinaHouse

The best drawings go up on display!

Patrons’ artwork on display at ChinaHouse

When I met Larry, he had just put down a green-coloured crayon and picked up his coffee mug.  Guess what he was drawing? The Burning Man 2017 effigy of course! “This place invites radical self-expression,” he remarked the moment I sat down. “That is one of Burning Man’s 10 principles!”

Munching on some chocolate cake, he added, “I’m already thinking of what I want next year’s Burning Man to look like. I was waiting for my food and I sketched a design that I thought might embody our theme. It’s going to be about spirituality and rituals next year.”
Sketch of the effigy that will be burnt at Burning Man Festival in 2017

“It won’t be anything supernatural, because we don’t pretend to be a religion. So, it won’t be about some supreme being, but it will very much be about the idea that being should be supreme,” he told me, showing me the first draft of the effigy that will be burnt in the Man Pavilion in 2017. Honestly, I felt a frisson of thrill when I saw it, like I was privy to something that others were dying to know about. This was back in August, when GTF was still in full swing. If you go to the website now, you can see a slight variation of this sketch on the site. I was also quite amazed that a five-day festival requires year-long, painstaking effort, from multiple actors.

Larry agreed, adding that building the effigy and the pavilion supporting it – called the Man Pavilion – itself requires a massive collaborative effort. And this would be just one among the many other interactive art works on display. “Many talents and many hands would be employed in creating the final design of the effigy,” he added. The Man Pavilion is located at the geographical centre of the Black Rock City and is the major attraction at the festival.

Larry’s enthusiasm about the festival, which turned 30 this year, is unwavering and infectious. The idea of community participating in art is still dear to him. “Burning Man is premised on the idea that we have to merge art with daily life and that it should require a community for its creation, a community participating in it in some fashion for it to be complete. It should also generate a community beyond the scope of the original artwork whenever it’s possible.”

Speaking about community transcending art, there are plans afoot to run the festival year-long at a separate location in Nevada. That’s excellent news for people complaining about tickets running out every year!

The Burning Man co-founder also had some interesting things to say about Penang and the George Town Festival. “GTF is diverse, just as Penang is. Even more so, since it draws people from around the world. It is certainly creative. I have met some very interesting artists while I was here and it seems to be growing. It brings thousands and thousands of people.”

Well, that is a meeting I won’t quite forget in a hurry. Now, let me log on and check if Burning Man 2017 tickets are available. Ciao!