By day, much of Black Rock City looks like a rather scruffy shanty town. The elegant regularity of the city plan is discernible only from above – and high above; simply climbing a tall structure won’t do it. The visual pleasures of the day are mostly either smaller-scale – an impressive art car or art installation, or someone’s fabulous outfit – or natural – the sun rising behind the rugged hills that surround the playa, the magic of blowing dust that softens everything and makes it surreal. The city itself, a jumbled mass of dusty tents and vehicles, doesn’t have that much to recommend it to the eye.
That all changes when the sun sets. Abruptly, Black Rock City becomes a fluid constellation of fixed and moving lights. Art pieces glow and pulse in the blackness of the open playa. Bicycles and riders decked out in LED stripes and EL-wire gleam and blink as they glide through the darkness. Propane cannons spit fireballs into the night sky, and brilliantly-lit art cars trundle in and out of view. Distances shrink or grow, the familiar landmarks of the day vanish to be replaced by others – not necessarily fixed or reliable. It takes on a fairyland quality, the squallor of the day hidden by darkness: half sprawling Luna Park, half undersea scene, as if the clusters of lights were the signatures of a hundred thousand bioluminescent organisms.
It’s fitting that one of the most universally popular artworks at Burning Man this year was Lekha Washington’s endearing, quirky piece Moondancer – This Too Shall Pass. A giant balloon, black on one side and silvered on the other, towed across the playa by a tricycle, Moondancer was the perfect addition to the night-time skyline. “Is that the fake moon, or the real moon?” people would ask – an important question, because Moondancer was an ignis fatuus, its constant motion making it a most unreliable navigational aid. There was a special joy in looking up and seeing two moons in the sky at once, or noticing that a full moon you had seen a moment before had faded to a slender crescent while your attention was elsewhere. It was a gentle tease, at once charming and disorienting, a perfect reflection of the Burning Man experience and of the unstable, shifting, magical nighttime lightscape of the desert city.