The Broadway musical “Brigadoon” is the story of a Scottish town that appears once every 100 years for one day, only to disappear once more. In real life, a similar event happens every Labor Day week in the Nevada desert. It is called Burning Man and is an arts and music festival where a city of 50,000, known as Black Rock City, is built, lived in for one week, and then removed, leaving the desert as blank and pristine as it was before the event.
One of the main hallmarks of the event is an art piece simply called the Temple. Every year a new Temple is built in coordination with that year’s Burning Man theme, which is then burnt to the ground on the final night of the festival. But the Temple is much more than a simple structure of wood—each year the Temple comes to life because of the messages and mementos left by the event’s participants (known as burners).
Mourners and dreamers cover the Temple walls with messages to loved ones who have died, declarations of forgiveness, admissions of guilt and regret, and hopes for the future. In the Temple’s nooks and crannies, they place photographs, flowers, prayer flags, paintings, letters, lyrics, and possessions of the dearly departed. All of this will burn with the Temple. On the night that the Temple burns, people gather in a wide circle. Silently they watch as the smoke and flames consume their personal dedications. As they look about the crowd, they see the flickering faces of so many like themselves; one can feel as their pain, anguish, attachments, love, gratitude, and memories are released to the universe and a peace and stillness comes over the collective.
David Best, a San Francisco-based artist responsible for the design and construction of some of the first Temples, as well as this year’s structure, describes how the spiritual aspect of the Temple came to be. “It dawned on me: what I’m asking people to do is take the heaviest burden in their life… drag it out into the desert, and drop it on this temple.” He also noted that people were not just releasing emotions, but that they brought tangible symbols to burn. “It’s not only spiritual; it’s physical. People are actually physically leaving something meaningful.” They were bringing items that had belonged to the deceased, as well as art they had made representing significant events in their lives, the burning of which meant truly letting go and allowing healing to begin.
Yet people do not have to travel to the Nevada desert to see one of David Best’s Temples. On a much smaller scale, such a temple exists right here in Detroit. The Detroit Dream Project’s “Temple of the American Dream” was designed by David Best and built by volunteers in the Brightmoor/Old Redford neighborhood of northwest Detroit in June 2008.
This community art project and peace park is open to all, shaped by all, and the hub of many people’s dreams for what Detroit can be—what Detroit will be if we work and create together. Messages from the builders and visitors to the temple can be found on the temple structure. It was built as a place for peace, remembrance, and reflection, as well as a site for celebrations. You can find the temple in northwest Detroit just off Grand River and Lahser roads on Redford St. next door to Motor City Blight Buster’s Resource Center. Make it a point to visit the park next time you are in the area.
A great video of last year’s Burning Man Temple can be found at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpvUFsjlKjM