Reno Artists Build Buddhist Temple For Burning Man

Sep 5, 2015

The Black Rock Desert arts festival better known as Burning Man wraps up this weekend with the ritual torching of several major art pieces. Reno Public Radio's Julia Ritchey takes us behind the scenes of one of these soon-to-be incinerated exhibits.

In the weeks leading up to Burning Man, a busy crew of 25 people worked around the clock, sanding wooden lotus-shaped petals and putting the finishing touches on a piece of artwork called the Mazu Temple.

Mazu is a deity, and she is a goddess of sea farers and travelers."

That's Charlie Nguyen, the art director of the project. He says Mazu is particularly significant to his own family.

"Personally, my mother escaped Vietnam shortly after the war and she's my mom's patron saint," says Nguyen. "My mom tried to escape Vietnam a couple of times, and finally, by the good graces of what she says Mazu did, ended up in America."

His project is one of more than 80 art installations now peppering the dusty playa.

The artwork itself is 50 feet wide by 42 feet tall and surrounded by 108 lanterns that mimic the Buddhist rosary.

The temple would typically sit on piers over the water, but instead is perched on the alkaline sands of the Black Rock Desert with ground lighting effects resembling water.

Most of the work for Mazu took place at an industrial arts workshop called The Generator in Sparks.

"What we wanted to do is incorporate the things that we as a collective group found really exciting about Burning Man," says Nguyen. "So we have eight fire-breathing dragons, we have Chinese divination ... we also have a resident poet that has written 60 different poems with coordinates to the city."

Projects like this, he says, take a lot of money and time to execute. They held two Kickstarter campaigns and partnered with an arts collective in Taiwan called the Dream Community, which financed the majority of the six-figure sculpture.

About 40 Taiwanese people from the collective actually traveled to Burning Man this week, bringing with them traditional costumes to participate in temple performances and parades.

"I think it's really crazy that their first experience of America is Burning Man," says Nguyen.

The idea for the temple first came from Nathan Parker, the project leader. He says Mazu temples are found all over Taiwan and play a central role in their spiritual traditions.

He says he hopes viewers see the art as respectful of Eastern culture.

"One of the key differences between cultural appropriation and bringing something in that shares culture in a meaningful way is the level of detail and the attribution of that detail," says Parker.

On Friday, of course, all that attention to detail will go up in smoke. Their temple is one of the first projects to be set on fire to mark the end of the week-long festivities.

"This marks right now at about nine months since I've been working on this," says Parker. "It's sort of my art baby. To see it come from a concept to an actual thing on the playa — to watch the sun rise over the entrance gate — that will make it all worth it to me."

After the temple gets toasted, Nguyen and Parker say, it's back to the blank canvas. They’ll be sticking around Reno to start planning their next big project.