20,000 Leagues Under the Desert

In his 20th year at Burning Man, Michael Christian creates a huge giant squid, "Oid."


Michael Christian working on the Giant Squid.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

Berkeley-based artist Michael Christian recalls, “The first year I was asked to create art for Burning Man, I got about $1,000 and a truckload of bones.”

It was 1997 and Christian and a friend arrived a few days early to build the art installation on-site. “My original idea was to make a tower, but we didn’t have enough material, so we spent a couple days driving to ranches on the outskirts of the desert collecting more bones.” In the end, Christian built a 30-foot archway connecting the bones with salvaged steel, launching his vocation and avocation.

“Obviously, the expansiveness of the desert lends itself to large art,” said the Burning Man veteran, but the festival presented him with another opportunity. “I’m drawn to the interaction, art that is experiential and tactile.” After all, Burners don’t just look; they touch. And they climb on, dance around, and hang things from his sculptures. Plus, thousands of people come in contact with his art there. “There’s an immediacy to Burning Man that, as an artist, you can’t experience anywhere else.”

Soon Christian was taking his creations on the road. “Putting this much energy into it, I felt the art should have a life beyond Burning Man,” he explained. And he’s not alone. Christian and some Burning Man artists temporarily install their large art at festivals across the country, such as Coachella and Electric Daisy Carnival. He has staged sculptures at more than 200 events and has no plans to stop. “People activate my art by how they engage with it. It opens a door. It’s no longer a just an object to look at; it’s place where they make memories.”

Burning Man 2016 will be the 20th year that Christian has received an honorarium to build on the playa. He calls it Oid—a 20-foot nautilus shell with appendages that one can crawl inside. Back in 1997, Christian was one of a handful of artists funded to produce art. “Creative elements had been brought out to the desert for years, but that year, art became more of a central focus,” he said. This year, Burning Man organizers awarded honoraria for large artworks to 55 artists and collectives, including 13 from the East Bay. The grants help defray the building costs, which can be significant, but fundraising for their art is also a big part of the artists’ work.

Burning Man comes to a close Sept. 5, when artists will be breaking down, packing up, and in some cases, burning up their art. 

Published online on Sept. 1, 2016 at 7 a.m.

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