Two Burning Man Artworks Created Community and Commemorated Loss

Chinwe Oniah
Sep 9, 2022 9:21PM

Erin Douglas, installation view of BLACK! Asé at Burning Man, 2022. Photo by Manuel Pinto. Courtesy of Burning Man.

On the Thursday evening of this year’s Burning Man event, September 3, 2022, a crowd of Black burners formed around BLACK! Asé, a major art piece on the playa. They huddled in for the annual Black burners group photo, a tradition that started back in 2018. On Sunday evening, another crowd of burners of all stripes formed around the Empyrean Temple, a wooden structure that resembles an eight-point star when lit up. The temple housed commemorations—photos, cards, flowers, and personal tchotchkes—of loved ones who have passed on. Both crowds were especially enthusiastic, reuniting for the first time on the playa since 2019, thanks to Burning Man’s COVID-related hiatus.

Since its inauguration in 1986, Burning Man has been a radically utopian space. It’s a haven for artists to dream up wild, large-scale artworks and a place where new traditions can take hold. While Burning Man also has a reputation as a hedonistic, week-long party in the desert, its communal ethos has become especially meaningful after years of isolation and major changes throughout the world. BLACK! Asé and the Empyrean Temple exemplified renewed creative commitments to community and togetherness. Their importance lingers long after their destruction on the Black Rock Desert dust.

Erin Douglas, installation view of BLACK! Asé at Burning Man, 2022. Photo by Erin Douglas. Courtesy of Erin Douglas.


Erin Douglas, the artist behind BLACK! Asé, first attended Burning Man in 2017. Excited and nervous when she arrived, she looked for other burners of color to guide her through the experience. “I wanted someone who looked like me to tell me I would be okay—and they did,” she wrote in a blog post for Essence Magazine in 2019.

Douglas began the Black Burner Project in 2018, photographing burners of color, sharing their stories, and encouraging people of color to challenge themselves to go into new and unknown spaces. Her Black burners group photo—a family photo of sorts—became tradition for Black burners on the playa. The group grew each year, emphasizing a growing, inclusive community.

Erin Douglas, installation view of BLACK! Asé at Burning Man, 2022. Photo by Chayna Girling. Courtesy of Burning Man.

This year, We Are From Dust, an organization that helps artists showcase their work on and off the playa, approached Douglas with an opportunity to exhibit a larger art piece on the playa. Douglas developed the idea of BLACK! Asé, an installation featuring the photographs she’s taken of Black burners over the years—blown up to 30-foot scales.

Mounting artwork at Burning Man has been a long-term dream for Douglas. “When I felt the call to start documenting people of color, little did I know that it would eventually turn into this,” she said.

Douglas noted that the concept of her piece isn’t groundbreaking—but that’s exactly what makes it striking. “We don’t get people who look up to us, we don’t get to take up space, we don’t get to live in our power,” she explained. “I think it is sad that you have to keep telling people why this is so important. It’s minor in the action, but the impact is huge.”

Laurence Renzo Verbeck, installation view of Empyrean Temple, 2022. Photo by John Curley. Courtesy of Katie Eldridge and Burning Man.

Hopefully, Douglas’s BLACK! Asé installation becomes a tradition as integral to Burning Man as the temple burning. While the main event for Burning Man is the burning of the man on Saturday night, the event doesn’t officially close until the yearly temple burns. While the Burning Man ceremony is rowdy, the temple burning is silent and solemn.

The temple burning tradition began 20 years ago as a happy accident. David Best and Jack Haye, designers who constructed the first temple in 2000, dedicated it to one of the temple builders, who’d died in a motorcycle accident. Others left tributes to their loved ones in the temple, and a tradition was born.

Laurence Renzo Verbeck, installation view of Empyrean Temple, 2022. Photo by Matt Emmi. Courtesy of Burning Man.

This year’s temple, the Empyrean Temple, designed by Laurence Renzo Verbeck and Sylvia Adrienne Lisse, was especially meaningful. Representing a divine realm, the eight-point Empyrean design resembled a compass and aimed to evoke “hope, abundance, transformation, direction, justice, balance of duality, and harmony between the profound and mundane.” Over the last three years, burners have lost loved ones to the pandemic—partners, friends, and people they met through Burning Man. This year, they were finally able to unite at the playa and offer tribute.

In a conversation with one of his campmates, a long-time burner who doesn’t usually make much of the temple said the burn was something of a catharsis. After a rough two years, experiencing deaths among his closest friends and family, the burn offered a sense of closure. Grief disintegrated into the desert air.

Chinwe Oniah