Urine for a Treat
A Sculpture Puts Waste to Good Use
Instead I go visit the Golden Tower Project, an installation by Susan Robb and Jeff Miller, two Seattle artists who, not incidentally, are friends of mine. The project is beyond the fire-watching crowd and lit from within, glowing faintly blue and gold, floating in the darkness like a buoy. This is what it is: a tower made of 400 jars of urine (collected from artists around the country) stacked one on top of the other on 16 metal bases. The whole thing is about seven feet high and lit by electroluminescent wires. And it is gorgeous. Luminous, warm; kind of like biological stained glass.
To understand the smartness of this project, first you should know that at Burning Man, out in the middle of Nevada's Black Rock Desert, self-hydration is, necessarily, an obsession. It has its own culture, its own ethics, and its own motto: "Pee often, pee clear."
The Golden Tower also brings to mind the body's alchemical processes--the power to turn water into wine, sort of--which creates this substance that is usually poured into the ground instead of elevated through art. People approach the installation, and after a beat they realize what it is, reel in disbelief, and then laugh. It seems the contributors to the Golden Tower Project weren't very hydrated when they made their donations. The autumn colors in the jars range from sweet lemon yellow to a rather appalling amber; some are perfectly translucent and others ominously cloudy.
I hang around the Golden Tower for a while, and then I decide to go dancing. At Bianca's Smut Shack, the music is techno and loud, and the crowd is dancing hard. No sooner do I decide I'm hungry than a woman comes through the crowd with a tray of hot grilled cheese sandwiches. They taste like manna. My next thought (now I'd like a drink) is still nascent when I find myself offered a bottle of whiskey by a beautiful boy in Jesus robes.
The rest of the story doesn't bear telling here. Its interesting coda is that the next day, when I tell Susan about how my needs were met before I knew I needed them, she laughs at my evident surprise and says, "The playa provides."
I am here to say that this is more or less true. "The playa" is the Black Rock Desert, a sere, alkaline flat that once a year becomes (I'm told) the second-largest city in Nevada. It also refers to the wide-open area enclosed by the horseshoe-shaped encampment of 26,000 people, and this is where the art happens, where artists put up site-specific installations that develop over the course of the week and often go up in flames at the week's end. Every day I got on my bicycle and went out on the playa to look at the art and see how it had progressed from the day before. I have (not very shockingly) lost my notes with all the artists' names, but I remember the structures. A number of them referred to the vast amount of space around us by constricting it; one spiraled in like a nautilus and became increasingly smaller until you were crawling on your belly on the desert floor to see it. Many of the works were body-related (this year's theme) and most were quite literal: a giant heart, a rib cage, an anus. The rib cage was gorgeous; the anus very witty (you climbed up into it and then slid out the other side), but nothing terribly conceptual or subtle--until the Golden Tower Project. It represented an amazing amount of actual biology without any body parts to act as signposts. It was also delicate and beautiful.
And lucky, lucky us. Susan and Jeff are re-installing the Tower at the Pound Gallery next month; without revealing too much, I'll tell you that they have a kind of Robert Smithson site/nonsite thing planned in order to evoke the original installation. It's tempting to say that you had to be there. But come anyway. Urine vited.