Burning Man by night

Black Rock City, NV, USA

Hic sunt dracones

Dragon art car at night

Black Rock City, NV, USA

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.