lack Rock City, the temporary city of 75,000 or so people that is the setting for Burning Man, has a lot more in common with Las Vegas than either is willing to admit. Indeed, the two are through-the-looking-glass versions of each other. The Las Vegas Strip and the Black Rock City Esplanade both feature seemingly endless displays of every manner of blinky light. Both are fueled by intoxicants legal and illicit. What happens in each ought to stay there. The big idea underlying both cities is a shot at a life-changing event, whether it is a monetary jackpot or a spiritual revelation. We go in thinking that just maybe we will come out with our lives meaning something different and more. Most importantly, the aesthetic culture and the attention economy of both cities is driven by eye-popping spectacle.
Given these parallels, it makes perfect sense that the organizers of Transfix chose a site on the Las Vegas Strip as the first stop of what they hope will be a touring display of large-scale immersive and experiential art, much of which either has been previously displayed at Burning Man or has been created by artists with a few playa credits on their resumes. Located on four acres behind Resorts World, Transfix features nearly 40 artists and works varying in size from Zachary Coffin’s person-sized, carved basalt “Throne” to Marco Cochrane’s 45-foot-tall figure sculpture, “R-Evolution.” Most of the work is interactive to varying degrees; Amigo & Amigo’s “Trumpet Flowers” allows viewers to press a button that plays a synthesized jazz riff while causing the eponymous flowers to light up. HYBYCOZO’s “Point of View” casts giant doilies of light and shadow while the viewer spins the intricately carved steel polyhedrons.
The various works are arranged in a minor labyrinth formed by shipping containers, some which contain art installations, some of which contain bars, and some of which form an elevated patio. The creation of a number of distinct spaces allows the viewer to become mildly disoriented in a way that both makes the geography of the experience seem larger than it is, and allows for the viewer to discover something unexpected by rounding a corner or entering a doorway. To some extent, the environment simulates the effect of viewing this work on the vast backdrop of the Black Rock Desert, but with cold drinks and clean bathrooms.
By moving this work from the ostensibly commerce-free setting of Burning Man to the orgy of commercial excess that is the Las Vegas Strip, Transfix also brings the art culture and artists of Burning Man a step closer to the art world of museums, galleries, and academic institutions. While many Burning Man artists, including a number of the artists featured in Transfix, come from an art school background and/or work as professional artists, the lack of an academic arts education has never been a barrier to entry in the world of Burning Man/festival art. Maybe because of this, the conversation of festival art — the set of idioms and cultural references, the visual language, the audience, and the activity of viewing — is very different from the conversation of museum and gallery art.
Nothing in Transfix highlights this difference more than Marco Cochrane’s “R-Evolution.” For the past three or four decades, the academic conversation surrounding figure sculpture has acknowledged that the history of nude women in Western art (at least with all the caveats that accompany sweeping generalizations) is the history of male artists painting or sculpting idealized female bodies as objects of male pleasure. In the context of that conversation, Cochrane’s monumental nude, a woman who is for damn sure, and by any measure, smokin’ hot, could be viewed as the most recent in a long line of work that objectifies women, propagates unrealistic ideals of female beauty, and portrays women as passive objects of male desire.
However, Cochrane entirely eschews that conversation, instead insisting that his intent is to “de-objectify women and inspire us all to take action to end violence against women, thus allowing everyone to live fully and thrive.” I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Cochrane’s stated intention. To some extent, his work shows a woman who is aware of her power. The figure in “R-Evolution” stands confidently, her head held high and her shoulders back. She does not simper on a divan. And, I should point out, Cochrane’s technical mastery is nothing short of dazzling.
Still, it is hard to look at his work without thinking about John Berger’s Ways of Seeing: “you painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” Do Cochrane’s admirable intentions really just provide the viewer and the artist a moral and intellectual basis to again reassert that pretty girls are pretty — an artistic tautology as old as patriarchy and every bit as boring?
Cochrane’s work raises a core question: does an artist have the sole authority to define the parameters of the art conversation it is a part of? Are we, as viewers, as people who think about art and the role that art plays in society, obligated to accept the manner in which the artist contextualizes his or her work? Is it fair to look at Cochrane’s work in the art historical context of female nudes when he has expressly stated a diametrically opposite intention? These aren’t easy questions. I have never settled on an answer for more than a few hours at a time. But they are questions that deserve consideration.
Transfix includes works, such as Cochrane’s, that raise these questions of how to define the parameters of the conversation. The show also includes work, such as Charles Gadeken’s “Entwined,” that has a foot firmly planted in both the festival art world and the gallery world. While the selection of work and the setting suggest these questions of context, Transfix does not make much of an effort to expressly explore the relationship between the Burning Man art world and the academic/gallery art world. Those questions are beyond the scope of the show’s already extravagant ambitions.
What Transfix does, with great success, is not only display a well-curated collection of breathtaking artwork, but also to create an environment that communicates the vibe of Burning Man. The heat, dust, expense, and inconvenience of Burning Man make it an experience that a relatively small number of people are able to undertake. That is a shame, because the visual culture of Burning Man has, over the past 30 some-odd years, developed into an art movement worth consideration and conversation in its own right. Often, public displays of Burning Man art fail to communicate the context in which that work is built to be viewed — for the simple reason that the physical and social environment of Burning Man can play an essential role in how the art is seen and read. The triumph of Transfix is to make the experience of Burning Man art accessible to a much larger audience — not only by displaying the work, but also by providing necessary context with a little bit of the magic that the physical environment of the Black Rock Desert provides.
It is an absolute delight.
(Bonus fact: In the lobby of the adjoining Conrad Hotel, you can see one of Liberace’s mirrored pianos displayed.)
Transfix opened last week at Resorts World on the Las Vegas Strip and is slated to be on view through fall. Tickets are $69 on weekends, $59 on weekdays, and $25 for children. Info here.
Photos: Kris Vagner
Cover image: Another view of “Stellar” by the audiovisual research studio Playmodes