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Home » Travels » Three-time ‘burner’ Lekha Washington talks about Burning Man, its non-stop partying and gifting culture

Three-time ‘burner’ Lekha Washington talks about Burning Man, its non-stop partying and gifting culture

A 34-foot polar bear stands tall in the middle of the desert. It’s made of car hoods. Keeping it company is a 40-foot jellyfish, a giant colourful chameleon made of tiles, clouds held in place by a sculpture… and amidst all these brilliant art installations is an 11-foot moon, dancing carefree in the sky, reflecting the people convened for Burning Man in Nevada’s sprawling desert.

The moon — titled Moondancer — has been created by Lekha Washington, and is the only installation by an Indian artist at the event. “There was a helium balloon inside and a cover on the outside that was hand-painted silver and yellow. Depending on the wind, it would go from full moon, to half, to no moon. It was hoisted about 150 feet in the air and people were confused because there were two moons in the sky,” laughs Lekha, adding, “It worked well against the wide expanse of darkness.”

Lekha Washington with her installation in the background

Lekha Washington with her installation in the background  

This was Lekha’s third time at Burning Man, which is a seven-hour drive from San Francisco and a three-hour drive from Reno. For this edition, she took along a team of 20 to help set up her art work. “The festival partly sponsors 60 artists. I was one of the honorary artists. I got 16 tickets and a camp space which is normally hard to get. The tickets cost around $450 and are usually sold out in five minutes,” she says.

Moondancer was a rockstar at the event. The team was perpetually surrounded by attendees intrigued by the simple yet stunning display, including Paris Hilton. As well as an astronaut (just another reveller dressed in a spacesuit), who had important questions about the moon, of course.

“The days in Nevada are very hot and the nights, cold. Because the weather was bad with winds and dust, mine was the only helium piece that survived,” says Lekha. Temperatures dropped to 7 degrees C at night, so cold that one night she once wore every single outfit she had carried with her, all at once.

Straddling extremes

Burning Man has no dress code and no judgement. People can wear what they like, be it monokinis, leather, lace, fishnets, feathers or pyjamas. “Given the temperature, during the day there was relative nudity. But it’s a free environment where you are not sexualised,” says Lekha.

A festival with a fiery past

  • Burning Man took place this year from August 25 to September 3. The dates for 2019 are August 25 to September 2.
  • It all started as a summer solstice ritual in 1986, when Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James created a wooden man and burnt it at a beach in San Francisco. As the 8-foot man was devoured by angry yellow flames, a little crowd gathered to watch.
  • In 1990, it moved to its present location in Black Rock Desert, Nevada. A temporary city is built every year. Called Black Rock City, it plays host to participants who live in tents and RVs for the 10 days of the festival.
  • The festival is primarily anti-consumerism and celebrates self-expression. That explains all the art work, workshops and performances. Once in this city, everything is free. It’s a space for hope, love, warmth and giving.
  • Participants follow the ten main principles the festival is based on. These include: ‘radical’ inclusion, self-reliance and self-expression, as well as community cooperation, civic responsibility, gifting, decommodification, participation, immediacy, and leaving no trace.
  • There is a theme every year. This year’s was I, Robot.

There is always a party on somewhere in Black Rock City. The space is filled with art installations, by the selected artists, as well as attendees who wish to showcase their work. Burners, there were around 70,000 this year, participated in a number of activities: Yoga, gin tasting, dancing to electro music and so much more. “It’s hard to sleep there as you’re over stimulated and there’s always FOMO,” laughs Lekha.

Funky is an understatement

Every aspect of the festival is unique. There is a defunct aircraft — a hit with most — where people can leave behind their emotional baggage. Since regular vehicles are not allowed, to get around the vast area of temporary Black Rock City, people use cycles, hoverboards or mutant vehicles.

The mutant varieties include modified motorised vehicles that look nothing like what you see on the roads. These are dramatic, fun, wacky and innovative. Think Mad Max. It’s all very psychedelic with cycles whizzing about, each decked with neon lights. It is mandatory for rides and people to be lit up, as the desert is really dark once the sun goes down.

Burn down the night

Lekha and her friends found themselves thumbing a lift from a 67-year-old man once: on his chariot. “Ridiculous” is the word Lekha uses to describe the experience every couple of sentences. In a good way, of course.

“There is no commerce. There’s a gifting culture. I received a crown of thorns, soup, jewellery, a hip flask…” she says, and then adds, “And we met a guy and his partner who only spoke in duck voice.”

Burning Man throws you out of your comfort zone. “There is no space for hang-ups or the protective layers you build around yourself. It gives you a sense of what you are capable of,” she says, and after a pause adds, “It’s ridiculous. I just can’t explain it!”

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