build an art piece in the desert at Burning Man?
Artists from around the world see Burning Man as a unique opportunity to elevate their art, while facing the vortex of challenges caused by extraordinary, yet sometimes tortuous surroundings.
We met up with Victor Spinelli, a multidisciplinary artist who erected a 24 feet tall statue in the desert.
It’s hard to explain what Burning Man is to a complete novice. Starting as a small fire ceremony in 1986, it has grown into a week-long event welcoming 80,000 participants to the desert of Nevada each year. Visitors are encouraged to follow 10 principles in order to create a utopian pop-up city, all while braving the sweltering heat and frequent dust storms.
The organization itself doesn’t provide anything besides some basic infrastructure. Everything else, from food and water to communal shade structures and entertainment and arts is arranged by the ticket buyers themselves. Including all the larger-than-life art installations.
So, Burning Man is whatever its civilians make it. But the art project submission process isn’t easy, as is raising funding for the project. And then the rollercoaster adventure of physically hauling your art out there hasn’t even started yet.
Victor Spinelli is one of those artists taking the challenge head-on, following the natural progression of one of his most popular artworks; “Diver UP”. Inspired by an original photograph from 2005, he realized several smaller objects and statues based on it before.
How do you keep an art concept evolving?
Victor Spinelli picked up the art of photography while living in Mykonos before moving to Ibiza, where he documented Manumission. This meant taking footage of the events and the acts on stage, as well as following the artists and showgirls backstage and around town.
The original photo that inspired “Diver UP” was an idea Victor had been thinking about for a while. When he finally found the vintage diving helmet, he brought it to life with a model on the beach.
Victor Spinelli:”The symbolism behind the juxtaposition of the divine feminine with an industrial helmet shows the contrast of mother earth versus man-made, with the goddess freeing herself from the controlling force imposed on her.”
The unique composition turned out so well that it was reprinted and reworked into many different art pieces, hanging on the walls of establishments all around the island, and beyond.
Victor:”At some point, I started shooting less, and started painting on my photographs more often. These artworks sold so well that I kept going. The next step was printing them into bigger dimensions, and then I finally started creating sculptures too”
Creating sculptures of “Diver UP” is the point from which things really started to blow up…
How do you bring your artwork to Burning Man?
Victor came kind of unprepared to his first Burning Man in 2007, without knowing much about it. Victor Spinelli:”I found myself biking around, feeling completely overwhelmed by all the art, and it got me thinking about all the possibilities with my own art.”
Different incarnations of “Diver UP” were brought to Burning Man over the years. In 2009, a 24 feet printed version of the photograph was realized. But Victor had always wanted to create a large sculpture of it.
In 2019, this opportunity came. An 8 feet tall wooden sculpture of “Diver UP” was built and ceremoniously burned at the end of the week, right on top of the ashes of where the actual man effigy was burned.
Work commenced on the 24 feet steel and fiberglass sculpture in Mexico City in early 2022, as it was designed to be built up out of 8 parts. Victor raised funding by splitting these parts into smaller shares, piecing them together.
Specific instructions were followed to wrap and safely truck the sculpture out to Nevada, where a team of 12 investors and friends helped with the build.
But anyone who has been to Burning Man knows how it puts you to the test in so many ways. Each and every person camping out there will come across unforeseen challenges.
Victor:”Once you embark on your journey to Burning Man, it’s like you get sucked into this vortex where everything is going in every direction. Somehow, you can’t find anything, things go wrong, and you’re thinking how is this all happening?”
Obviously, this vortex spawned an endless list of roadblocks. To name just a few, it started while unloading the truck, when Victor found out that blocks of protective styrofoam were placed around the diver as an extra safety measure.
One of the 10 Burning Man principles is to “leave no trace”, so the organization was quick to show up asking about the mess once the styrofoam started crumbling.
Besides this, the steel infrastructure was welded to the truck. Heavy machinery had to be arranged to grind the metal off to release the diver, and the team really had to juggle with the collar and the hands, which weren’t fitting right.
The Burning Man organization also insisted on using extra ground anchors, for which a drill had to be arranged. Then throw in the harsh weather conditions with white-out sand storms that prevent you from seeing a thing…
The worst part though, was waiting in the blazing sun for the machinery to show up. Because another thing about Burning Man is that there is no phone reception out in the desert.
Victor:”You depend on them to bring the machinery. And the deal is, they say they’ll come today, and you have to wait by your art piece. If you’re not there when they show up with the crane, they will just leave and you go to the bottom of the list.”
For so many art pieces, there are only limited cranes. After a 2 year hiatus due to the pandemic, a record number of 337 officially registered art pieces made it to the 2022 event (many rolling over from 2020).
Moreover, people in the organization had moved up or moved on during these years, so things were slightly disorganized. Victor:”They do their best, they’re great, there is just a lot going on. It’s a big city.”
So, the team patiently waited for the crane. Victor:”We got there early at 9am and waited for 6 hours for the crane to come. The next day, they said they would arrive at 9:30, straight after their 9am meeting. But, we ended up waiting for another 6 hours. This was just so demoralizing for the team…”
Even on Tuesday after the week-long event, the team had to wait another 3 hours for the crane to help them break down. Altogether, that’s 2 days lost that they could have been experiencing and exploring Burning Man.
Victor:”I didn’t really have time to see any of the other art myself, I wasn’t even able to go party and dance that much either.”
How do you remain flexible when the plan needs to change?
Considering how grueling the experience can be, you might wonder why so many artists keep submitting art projects. How do you endure circumstances that are so unpredictable?
As for being flexible, the creative decision was made to place the helmet of “Diver UP” on the ground next to the body, instead of placing it on the collar. Victor:”We felt this kept the art piece more surreal for everybody seeing it in the desert and it worked perfectly with the concept. The diver has lifted the heavy helmet, freeing the feminine goddess.”
Victor is quick to respond when asked if he would recommend other artists to bring their art to Burning Man. Victor:”Yes, live your dream! For me, seeing my art piece out there was amazing. It’s such an incredible environment, very Dalí-esque, there is nothing like it.”
Of course, he received plenty of positive feedback at the event, and after. People are still sharing photos of “Diver UP” on social media. There was even a couple that got married in front of the art piece.
Victor:”So many people came up to me during the week, hugging me, saying thank you for bringing this art piece out, what a beautiful message. One guy was brought to tears.”
There are more than enough reasons why Victor would never discourage anyone to bring art to Burning Man. But he also has some firm advice. Victor:”Be ready to roll with the punches and head into different directions. Think outside of the box, and just be ready for anything!”
The statue now has a temporary home in Las Vegas at Area 15, a big entertainment complex, where it will be displayed with the helmet on top. However, it might find its way back to Burning Man 2023. In addition to that, Victor will bring out a new art piece.
It probably won’t be another renewed incarnation of the diver, but Burning Man was certainly not the highest level of its evolution. Another outlandish concept inspired by “Diver UP" is already in the works.
Victor:”My idea is to create a cement sculpture of it to be displayed under the sea, as an art piece and living coral reef, visible to scuba divers!”