Engineering And Artistry Meet An Untimely End At Burning Man

Burning Man is so many different things to so many people, that it defies neat description. For those who attend, it always seems to be a life-changing experience, for good or for ill. The story of one man’s Burning Man exhibition is a lesson in true craftsmanship and mind-boggling engineering, as well as how some events can bring out the worst in people.

For [Malcolm Tibbets], aka [the tahoeturner], Burning Man 2017 was a new experience. Having visited last year’s desert saturnalia to see his son [Andy]’s exhibition, the studio artist decided to undertake a massive display in his medium of choice — segmented woodturning. Not content to display a bamboo Death Star, [Malcolm] went big– really big. He cut and glued 31,000 pieces of redwood into rings of various shapes and sizes and built sculptures of amazing complexity, including endless tubes that knot and loop around and back into each other. Many of the sculpture were suspended from a huge steel tripod fabricated by [Andy], forming an interactive mobile and kinetic sculpture.

Alas, Burning Man isn’t all mellowness in the desert. People tried to climb the tripod, and overnight someone destroyed some of the bigger elements of the installation. [Malcolm] made a follow-up video about the vandalism, but you’ll want to watch the build video below first to truly appreciate the scale of the piece and the loss. Here’s hoping that [Malcolm]’s next display is treated with a little more respect, like this interactive oasis from BM 2016 apparently was.

Thanks to [Keith Olson] for the tip.

38 thoughts on “Engineering And Artistry Meet An Untimely End At Burning Man

  1. It was too fragile for Burning Man. The parts were intended to be spun and the rotary joints didn’t have bearings, just holes and bolts with no lock washers or jam nuts, so the nuts were slowly unthreading as it spun. The spinning parts were too close to the tripod legs and (by hearsay) slammed into the tubing when someone was spinning the mobile fast. The laminar cross grain construction is about the weakest way you could build a wooden object.

    I saw it before it was destroyed and it was beautiful, and the workmanship is amazing. However, I’ve been on teams building large art out there and “overbuild” was the running theme. The Golden Rule: If it can be climbed, it will be climbed. They’ll run into it with bikes, 20 people will jump up and down on it in sync, your lights will be shattered by a car after they get covered in dust and become invisible.

    It’s sad that it was destroyed, but it is just a lesson for next time…no more and no less.

    1. That was my gut feeling too: it’s probably not willful destruction or vandalism, but a bit of festival boisterousness, possibly combined with a form of intoxication. It’s not a museum.

    2. Yes, his problem was thinking that at a thing like Burning Man there would be mostly decent people and not a flock of drunk douchebags with no commom sense whatsoever. (Which is a problem with almost every larger event these days…)

      It was a art piece and not some themepark ride for f*cks sake!

      1. The problem with Burning Man is that many of the themepark rides look like art pieces and vice-versa. There’s room for genuine confusion without douchery.

        Without a “don’t climb on this” sign, you’ve gotta be pretty sure that anything that invites climbing will get climbed.

        1. The festival brief does say “Participants are encouraged to explore and interact with the art. […]Touching, climbing, entering, spinning, engaging and exploring are encouraged.” Add to that this piece has what look to be seats in the middle of it, and it seems inevitable that people play with the piece, sometimes in boisterous fashion.

          1. What? The middle piece was NOT supposed to be used as seats?
            I understood, that the wooden objects were decoration, but the middle piece looked like some carousel-type group of seats to me, to sit under the artisan construction. If it was not supposed to be like that – I would not have known (from the look of pictures/videos).

        2. The plaque on the exhibit says not to climb it. Therefore people climbing on it shows a lack of respect for the artist and their work.
          That being said, idiots will idiot, if something is left unattended it needs to be robust.

    3. That may be the case, but it still does not lessen the disappointment for the artist or the level of jerkiness for the vandals. Perhaps Burning Man was not the appropriate venue to display this at… but still, people, why destroy something beautiful like this?

      Kudos to the artist for his reflections in the second video; he recognizes that despite the personal loss he felt, there is more to life than things.

        1. Right. It’s an event where 75mph wind gusts and large dust devils happen, where intense sunlight, dryness, heat, and corrosive dust take a toll on every object, where there are wild temperature swings from day to night, where rain and flooding is possible, and an event that started with people doing doughnuts in sledgehammer-modified rusted out cars while firing shotguns into the air. It is not a hushed modern art museum with glass cases, a gift shop, and slow walking in sensible shoes.

          Basically you should either build art to withstand installation at a frequently-bombed military base on Mars, or accept that there will be losses. Another huge art structure out there lost thousands of glass pieces due to transportation problems, and they did the best they could with whatever survived.

  2. The way the economics of limited space works out it creates a big goofy meetup of people who can afford the buy tickets or buy scalped tickets. It is wealthy people who have all of the confidence to do or break anyone or anything knowing they can fix the problem with that universal solution to problems… cash.
    I feel like the early days were for weird geeks like us, but it is all slumming millionaires now; many of whom can or will only solve problems with cash or influence not competence outside those two categories but have the aggressive nature to take or break to get ahead or just for fun.

      1. But this is spectacularly original. 2000 hours of work plus awesome creativity and you get a wood peace sign, valentine heart, and a Have a Nice Day smiley face! How could anyone have thought it wasn’t a jungle gym instead of an art installation?

  3. ” that universal solution to problems… cash.”

    Logic dictates that, if that observation is in fact true. One should be aspiring and/or developing methods to acquire more of said item (cash) – instead of tacit acceptance of one’s circumstances.

    That drive is what separates successful folks from the “sheeple”. Remember Gordon Gekko’s speech?

    Greed is a clean drive that “captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

  4. Clue to Malcolm: Don’t take your stuff to BM. It won’t be appreciated, as you discovered. There are better venues to show your work. BTW that was a very, very tedious bit of woodworking, maybe you should work on more practical things like boat building? Strip built kayak?

  5. Take drugs, jump into fire…. That gathering is full of idiots these days. All things fall, time spares nothing. So a bit of vandalism is trivial really, even if heartbreaking at the personal level.

  6. The art looks kinda neat, but it’s pretty lame that it’s made from Redwood, an endangered species that takes 5-10 lifetimes to grow…. I thought Burning Man was supposed to be about liberalism and ecology?

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