Burning Man Artists on 11 of This Year’s Most Anticipated Artworks

Artsy Editors
Aug 19, 2019 5:10PM

Thom White and Piece of Cake Productions, final rendering of Happy Birthday! (MEGA CAKE) by Thom White. Courtesy of the artist and Piece of Cake Productions.

It’s the time of year when Burning Man–bound artists start heading to a remote, dust-filled expanse of Nevada desert. These creatives and their collaborators spend days, or even weeks, mounting colossal sculptures and mind-bending installations across the seven square miles of Black Rock City. This year, they’ve responded to the theme “metamorphoses,” exploring notions of transformation, evolution, and rebirth.

Before they left, we caught up with the artists behind 11 artworks that will be at Burning Man 2019. Below, they share the inspiration behind these works; the materials and processes that went into their creations; and their hopes for what these artworks will communicate. (The following responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

Happy Birthday! (MEGA CAKE)

Thom White and Piece of Cake Productions

Thom White and Piece of Cake Productions, final rendering of Happy Birthday! (MEGA CAKE) by Thom White. Courtesy of the artist and Piece of Cake Productions.


Tell us a little bit about Happy Birthday! (MEGA CAKE).

Thom White and Jen Detlefsen: MEGA CAKE is a four-tier wooden birthday cake with interactive lighting, a two story slide, a gifting chamber, and flame and glass art elements. Its dodecagonal shape references the 12 months of the year, and zodiac imagery from both the eastern and western traditions, and speaks to the passage of time and the ways humans grapple with that journey.

The crew behind the cake, Piece of Cake Productions, met while supporting the programming for the groundbreaking “Art of Burning Man” exhibition at the Hermitage Museum and Gardens in Norfolk in 2017. Architect Thom White, a veteran Burning Man attendee and chief designer for Piece of Cake, was inspired to build his own large-scale interactive art after witnessing the dedication of this ragtag team of misfits. The funds to bake the cake have been entirely raised from friends and family and the team has worked doggedly at the 757 Makerspace for two years to bring the project to completion.

What do you hope to communicate through the piece?

T.W. and J.D.: MEGA CAKE facilitates a journey through the distinct moments that people encounter along the arc of a lifetim

“Happy Birthday” is a universal phrase of optimism and validation, akin to “Welcome Home,” “Thank You,” and “I Love You.” The phrase is a pleasant exchange between two people, creating a point of connection while acknowledging one’s unique existence and the passage of time. The birthday cake is the tastiest of all acts of community. Given to a person on their special day and then shared with friends, it provides a sense of recognition and acceptance.

From afar, the cake evokes a sense of excitement and may bring back memories of past birthdays. Once inside, it provides a safe and inviting space to go on a journey of reflection about where we began, our growth, and what we’d like to accomplish in our lives. Our intention is for this piece to celebrate all participants. It is a place of joy. Today is everyone’s birthday. This week is everyone’s birthday week; Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to us!


Michael Tsaturyan

Michael Tsaturyan, rendering of #Slonik. Courtesy of the artist.

Tell us a little bit about #Slonik.

Michael Tsaturyan: This is my second attempt to install my art at Burning Man. Last year it was a very challenging experience. It was a five-meter gallery, named Holoquarium which was very difficult technically to install. The construction took six days and sandstorms did not help; as a result, the whole festival passed me by as I was busy with the construction all the time. When we finally built Holoquarium, I jokingly told my campmates that if I ever made another piece for Burning Man, it would be an inflatable installation. As a result, I decided to make this giant inflatable sculpture. I decided to make an elephant, my favorite animal from childhood.

Despite the fact that it is an inflatable sculpture, the installation process will not be very simple. In order for #Slonik to withstand wind, it needs several tons of weight, as well as very complicated lighting equipment to illuminate it at night. It requires a lot of physical strength and special engineering skills, so I have a large team of builders coming with me a week before the festival so that right after the opening, the audience can see #Slonik alive.

What do you hope to communicate through the piece?

M.T.: I would like to draw people’s attention to the problem of elephant abuse in Africa and Asia, and to call for them to not support cruel businesses like circuses, zoos, and recreational tourism services that exploit animals.

Bee or Not to Bee

Mr & Mrs Ferguson

Tell us a little bit about Bee or Not to Bee.

Mr & Mrs Ferguson: Our contribution to this year’s Burning Man theme, metamorphoses, is a statement about one of the world’s most important contributors to our food supply. The bee in the scale of this installation makes the participant feel small for in a way the bee is bigger than we are for its contribution. Yet, the bee is vulnerable and this installation gives pause to think of what could happen if we lose honey bees through hive collapse, mites, and urban sprawl.

This eight-foot-tall bee will be hand carved from styrofoam covered in yellow and black concrete. We love creating a sense of whimsy with our installations, mostly through the materials we select. This year, we are choosing some new materials that will tantalize the participant.

Our first new material is yellow, nylon industrial broom bristle. Appearing as the long delicate hair of a bee, they will be delightful to run hands through, yet durable to bounce spring back into form. Multi-layered, deep gloss–painted black eyes will be a drawing feature, while the legs and feelers will be made with steel covered with foam and hair. The wings will be fine mesh steel that look like that are about to take flight.

The flower base is made of 35,000 thousand toy glass marbles, delightful to touch, a memory from childhood, and durable. There will be LED lights underneath, so the marbles will light the bee elegantly at night.

Our art installations are visual tricks that become a tactile experience. Touch is a sense often overlooked at Burning Man and art galleries. We have learned from past experiences that visitors stay longer with the art as they can touch and explore it. This year’s use of broom bristles and marbles should deliver a unique tactile experience that we hope surprises participants once again.

Art Park

Olivia Steele

Olivia Steele, rendering of Art Park. Courtesy of the artist.

Tell us a little bit about Art Park.

Olivia Steele: I’m known for my large-scale neon installations and road signs at Burning Man, but this year my contribution to the Playa is an Art Park: an immersive outdoor gallery comprised of 11 installations.

Each installation is text-based, executed in various mediums of signage, intended to invite the viewers for a moment of reflection and contemplation evoking a certain awareness that sheds light on things we all struggle with. I’m always playing with fire, but in lieu of doing another traditional large scale neon truism for a fifth year, I will be using fire in a new way. I have chosen to trade mediums, swapping hand blown glass filled with neon gas for hand bent iron filled with propane gas. Instead of illuminated words, my handwritten sentiment will be ignited! This is a new technique I have pioneered, born of a desire to have words literally burning, but never destroyed.

The headlining installation in the Art Park will be a large-scale fireplace reading “I Wish You Were Here.” This handwritten sentiment evokes a universal sense of desire and longing, which we can all relate to. Below the surface, it explores the dichotomy of presence vs. absence, the synergy of life and death, the relevance of past and present. This fireplace will not only provide warmth in the cold desert nights, it will also engage spectators in an emotionally charged moment of presence and remembrance.

What do you hope to communicate through the pieces?

O.S.: I believe that every person will take exactly what they need when encountering my works. The nature of anything text and language based lends itself to a commonly understood literal interpretation, however the personal interpretation will vary considerably. This is one of the most interesting facets of my work; the vast array of people’s interpretation of my words and their meaning.

The Art Park’s interactive and self-reflective experience should create an atmosphere where the viewer feels inspired to confront their existence, as it relates to their conditioning and modus operandi. This is a safe space to elevate one’s consciousness and gain insight that can heal and transform.


Clayton Blake

Clayton Blake, rendering of CONTAINERISATION. Courtesy of the artist.

Tell us a little bit about CONTAINERISATION.

Clayton Blake: CONTAINERISATION is a 40,000-pound art installation consisting of eight shipping containers arranged in an asterisk (star) formation.

The logistically challenging artwork required 12 months of planning. It required extensive computer modeling and comprehensive engineering analysis from the team at Rbhu. We have developed a unique and elaborate lighting display that illuminates the containers and creates special light effects at night.

The install process is complex and involves many committed and skilled people from welders and riggers to electrical engineers and freight forwarders.

What do you hope to communicate through the piece?

C.B.: CONTAINERISATION explores the concept of “containment” and the impact of unlawful detention of asylum seekers. By definition, the act of containment means keeping something harmful under control or within limits. So why do we continue to incarcerate those who pose no threat and are most vulnerable. Our refugee crisis is at epidemic proportions and our solution is to corral innocent people into inhospitable refugee camps. CONTAINERISATION is a comment on this monumental crisis and highlights the plight of millions of people who are forcibly displaced worldwide because of persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations. Collectively we all need to do more!

Head Maze

Matthew Schultz and The Pier Group

Matthew Schultz and The Pier Group, construction of Head Maze. Courtesy of the artist and The Pier Group.

Tell us a bit about Head Maze.

Matthew Schultz: The Head Maze is about the cognitive rip that I think we all experience to some degree as members of modern human society. In a world that is burning around us, I think we are all struggling to reconcile our role in its destruction, all while struggling with our animal and perceived superior selves.

The Head Maze is made of a bit of everything; the skin is fabric on a steel lattice frame, and the rooms are as varied as their themes. The project hides a three-story labyrinth of dreams and the subconscious. We have been building the project since January and designing it for two years. Hopefully, we can install it at Burning Man in 16 days.

What do you hope to communicate through the piece?

M.S.: At its core, the Head Maze is simply a monument to the struggle to be; a piece of art designed to share that it’s okay to struggle with the mind, and that mental illness is not wrong, and we all struggle with it.

The Flybrary

Christina Sporrong

Christina Sporrong, rendering of The Flybrary. © 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Tell us a little bit about The Flybrary.

Christina Sporrong: The Flybrary is a 24-foot steel head and neck with a flock of book-like birds flying out of the top of the head.

Within the head you will find an unusual library with an open ceiling, a neural circuit-inspired chandelier, and intricate catwalks leading to reading nooks and little enclaves for you to sit and lose yourself in a book. You can also check out a human book. I am working with the Human Library organization to facilitate this experience as well.

What do you hope to communicate through the piece?

C.S.: The idea of The Flybrary arose from how our thoughts are ours to emancipate, especially in a time where our actions can be severely limited. Our thoughts, dreams, and inner voices are autonomous and if we let them rise, our creative ideas can solve the challenges we all face. By way of a fantastical library within a head, I hope to encourage a thought-provoking space where relevant books can guide us to new ideas and innovation.

Contemplation within a surreal setting and circumstance inspires new ways of seeing things, forging new neural pathways, expanding one’s view from within to affect one’s view without. Burning Man is the perfect setting for TheFlybrary.


Chris Carnabuci

Tell us a bit about Mariposita.

Chris Carnabuci: Mariposita is inspired by a piece I created in 2014 called Fertility, a 30-inch-tall solid egg, with the bust of Aphrodite carved into it. I always knew at some point I would bring back that theme, and that, coupled with a desire to exhibit on Playa at Burning Man, compelled me to create Mariposita.

Mariposita is made of CNC cut, stacked slices of solid core wood panels. I began the process with a 3D model of the female figure, then “sliced” the model into 350+ horizontal layers through the Cad software, Slicer for Fusion 360. I moved these individual layers into AutoCad, and divided each one into pieces small enough so that several would fit on a standard 4-by-8 wood panel. After arranging each of the 3,000+ pieces on virtual panels, my AlphaCam software enabled me to select the particular CNC tool (router bit), and other settings, so that a code could be generated for the CNC machine to read. With this information, I then fed the machine over 250 panels, one at a time, and produced the pieces. Once each piece was cleaned and sanded, I assembled them into individual layers, and glued several layers at a time into blocks. These blocks were then stacked and temporarily secured on top of each other at my shop to create the sculpture.

After many iterations, I came up with a “rib and slat” design for the shell which allows 360-degree viewing, and an up-close-and-personal experience with Mariposita. While the production process was the same, I knew that because of height restrictions I could not fully assemble the shell until it was on site at Burning Man. So I put my faith in the design, and the accuracy of the CNC machine, that all the pieces would fit together, and the entire sculpture would be stable and secure. I plan to drive the sculpture in pieces across country to the Burn, where I will meet my crew, and bring her to life in the desert.

What do you hope to communicate through the piece?

C.C.: We are in the midst of continually challenging times. Women bear the brunt of this, because the “powers that be” threaten the most fundamental of rights. I have two strong and exceptional daughters, and a fiercely powerful wife. When I created Mariposita, I wanted to illustrate this strength and power—breaking societal bonds and misdirection that impede personal growth and self-actualization. In fact, Mariposita represents all of us, offering an example of hope and determination to find our inner strength—to be free.


Marc Ippon de Ronda with the support of ATO Designs Studio

Marc Ippon de Rondo with the support of ATO Designs Studio, rendering of Fragments. Courtesy of the artist and ATO Designs Studio.

Tell us a little bit about Fragments.

Marc Ippon de Ronda: Fragments represents a dreamlike temple emerging from the desert, a place of meditation and wisdom. It will be a set of giant mirror shards planted in the desert sand with a central staircase that one can climb at sunrise to gaze at the horizon.

The mystical tale behind Fragments was inspired by the environment of the Black Rock Desert and great myths. The artwork is also built on my artistic influences. I feel close to the way artists such as Richard Serra, Dan Flavin, James Turrell or Larry Bell used scale, space, and light as creative mediums.

The installation will be about 7 meters tall and will have a 40-meter perimeter, totaling 13 tons of material. Creating such a monumental piece requires resources, technical prowess, and a great sense of community. On the technical side, it will take hours of work in the sun and being able to adapt quickly to unexpected problems. It will also require the help of all the people supporting me in this adventure: the Burning Man organization, the builders, the French ATO Designs Studio team, and the volunteers. When the artwork will stand on the desert sand, reflecting the first Burning Man sunrise, we will have accomplished an artistic and human challenge, well worth the effort.

What do you hope to communicate through the piece?

M.I.R.: My wish is first to encourage dreaming. Fragments will be both a visually abstract and an interactive experience. Visitors will climb the steps of the pyramid, take shelter in the shade of the shards, and watch their reflections change in the mirrors. It is ultimately a piece about the perception of self and space, and will hopefully be a place for transformation.


Flaming Lotus Girls

Tell us a little bit about Serenity.

Rhiannon Maple: Serenity is an interactive and immersive fire sculpture consisting of jar pieces, three large fireflies that have fire effects, a plethora of small and bitty fireflies, a walkway, soundscape, fire pit and benches to take it all in. All of the components work to transport people who interact with it to a simpler space and time of just enjoying the night around them.

It was inspired by the summer tradition of capturing fireflies in a jar and being mesmerized by the magic of their light. However, the magic of our fireflies can’t be contained, and they have broken free to share their magic and wonder with the world.

What do you hope to communicate through the piece?

R.M.: Given that we live in a fast paced, technology-driven, complicated world, Serenity was created to encourage us all to slow down a little and take in the joys and wonder that surround us. We also want to encourage people to interact with large-scale art, as what we make isn’t meant to sit quietly in a corner somewhere, but rather to be touched and create new inspiration for others.

Wing Portal

Suki Somersall, Sven Eberwein, Stefan Rodan, John Briscella, Samantha Emley, Alexandra Duisberg, and Glenn Fischer

Suki Somersall, Sven Eberwein, Stefan Rodan, John Briscella, Samantha Emley, Alexandra Duisberg, and Glenn Fischer, rendering of Wing Portal. Courtesy of the artists.

Tell us a bit about Wing Portal.

Suki Somersall and Samantha Emley: Built as a gift for California, Wing Portal is a sculpture of transcendence made from the ruins of the 2018 California fires. The wings span 80 feet across and are built out of recycled metal, and thousands of LED lights and lasers.

Our sculpture is a visual metaphor for this year’s Burning Man theme: metamorphoses. After Burning Man, Wing Portal will be publicly installed, and our intent is for it to spark conversations around climate change and subsequent natural disasters.

What do you hope to communicate through the piece?

S.S. and S.E.: Wing Portal symbolizes the ability to find beauty in chaos and disaster. It is a phoenix rising from the ashes.

Artsy Editors