CREATING ART at BURNING MAN:
the CHAPEL of DANCING SHADOWS
By Anya Khalamayzer
Maria Kreyn is a Russian-born painter, traveler, and freethinker who has been named as one of the greatest modern figurative artists. This year, she broke free from the restrictions of the art world and the two-dimensional medium of paper to bring The Chapel of Dancing Shadows, an immersive structure and sound bath, to Black Rock City.
Kreyn’s paintings are achingly real, blending the techniques of Old Masters to illustrate contemporary life and reveal the deep, contemplative spirituality residing within fleeting moments of time. Faces and figures seem to billow out of air onto her canvases, dense and detailed, but so fragile that they may disappear with a gust of wind – an artist’s eye capturing the nature of life.
It is particularly fitting that Kreyn, a classically trained painter and polymath who studied mathematics and has a passion for architecture, built her first-ever structural installation in the temporal space of Burning Man, aptly themed “Da Vinci’s Workshop.”
” The ceiling is an arabesque lace canopy inspired by a memory, Byzantine art, and the Burning Man Temple.”
The Chapel aims to be a communal space serving as an art gallery, refuge, and sound bath for revelers, wanderers, and seekers. Its 8-foot-high, semi-transparent walls are home to delicate drawings, part of a series called a “Codex” of mysterious mythological characters. The ceiling is an arabesque lace canopy inspired by a memory, Byzantine art, and the Burning Man Temple. The structure is decorated by a collection of wind chimes, odes to the sounds of temples in Myanmar.
We spoke with the artist about stage fright, seeking inspiration in ancient and modern influences, the role of the Renaissance on modern art, and finding light while dancing with your shadow.
Twenty Five Hundred: Is this your first Burning Man art installation?
Maria Kreyn: Yes, it’s my first personal project. It’s also the first installation that I have ever made beyond little sculptures. I’m fulfilling a childhood dream to be an architect.
2016 is my seventh year in a row at Burning Man. Part of me is burnt out, and the way that I felt that I could contribute to it is to make an immersive piece for people to hang out in.
I had no idea what it would be – I knew I didn’t want to do it around my paintings. I knew I wanted to do it around something else that I was doing creatively, and the drawings of the Codex lent themselves beautifully to it. Back in the winter of 2015, I began doodling again because I had stopped drawing regularly and realized that I needed to be using my hands all the time.
I developed a series of drawings that are a sort of invented astronomy, like a fantastical invented creation myth for a civilization that never existed. The figures in the Chapel are the first 12 images of a 150-plate series that will be part of a book. They call up a lot of archetypes and mythology without having a specific direction, which I really like because I’m into ambiguity. You get to decipher it, which is why they are called the Codex.
TFH: What are the other components of the installation?
MK: The ceiling is supposed to be reminiscent of a lace canopy. It was inspired by a photo of a friend of mine who was wearing a crocheted white skirt. The sun was shining and she was spinning around, and it cast this incredible shadow on the ground. How amazing would that feeling be of having something structurally solid feel like you’re under a piece of lace?
This is like a mini Temple. I’ve been looking at the Temple at Burning Man for so many years and being inspired by David Best. Structurally, this project is different, but it’s a “thank you” to him because I’ve had so many wonderful experiences in his structures. I hope he likes it and isn’t offended by my saying that. His work is fantastic, and this is a gesture at it.
The walls are about 8 feet tall. I built a few scale models that had similar types of designs, but the second models were architecturally more stable. The original renderings were made in wood and we ended up using PVC – everything is way more durable, lightweight, completely reusable, but not burnable. the ceiling is made of aluminum. It’s really an amazing set of materials.
TFH: What is the sound bath component?
MK: I went to Myanmar for my birthday. Everywhere you go in that country, there are wind chimes on the temples. Wind chimes and bells everywhere. It was so phenomenal – I could not get it out of my mind. There were some other ways in which wind chimes brought back this sense of nostalgia and childhood. A childhood that never existed, but an idealized version of what it could have been to be a kid. In some ways, I wish that all of Burning Man was like that.
TFH: Who are you working with for fabrication of the Chapel?
MK: I am working with metal fabricators and a friend of mine, a fabricator, who cut all the ceiling panels. And of course, my father. He and I work on engineering type projects together. He was hugely instrumental in making this design make sense. I can do design work, but as far as structural engineering, he knew which bar had to go where, and which beam had to connect there. He helped me build the first scale models of this project. His education is in naval architecture and engineering.
TFH: This year’s Burning Man theme is Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop. Does it tie into the theme of your project?
MK: I have been looking at Leonardo’s drawings all my life. I have been very inspired by him in more ways than just creatively. He’s the ultimate polymath. Growing up, I sort of had that ethos as well. I’m not as rigorous, I’ve always been a lot more of a romantic. Even my paintings – there is a lot of rigor to them, but it’s not so calculated, which is funny because I studied math at UT Dallas. I’m much more of a baroque person, but the Renaissance is incredible! The artwork that came out of it is absolutely sublime.
“I wanted to build something very minimal: earth, fire, air. I think when you leave people with a blank slate- at its best, that’s what contemporary art is.”
TFH: Do you think that humanity is having a Renaissance right now?
MK: I don’t want to think of it that way, because I think that the arrow of time is actually pointing forward. As much as history repeats itself, because of our social and political situation and exigencies, I think that we are farther along. I wouldn’t want to be back in the Renaissance because I’m female and I really appreciate having been born at this time. I enjoy the freedom that I have. I enjoy the level of communication that I have with others. I enjoy the amount of technology that we have; the scientific and medical discoveries that we have made. I am not interested in just looking backwards. Maybe that’s actually the Renaissance ethic more than anything else. We are constantly experiencing a rebirth.
TFH: Why did you decide to name your structure a “chapel”?
MK: I just like contemplative spaces. I enjoy being in them, building them. When I closed my eyes and thought about the things I wanted to build, they were always structures that took on a semi-circular form.
It’s a 12-sided structure at this point. If you take the interior, it’s an octagon. The reason why it ended up that way is that I wanted to work with what it would look like if you looked at it from the top. Instead of containing it within that space, I thought, what would you do if you make archways that come out like buttresses on either side of it? It was just me looking at other chapel designs – like Renaissance and Byzantine, and wondering how I could play with that but make it a contemporary design.
I want it to be a sort of diaphanous shelter. The walls are fabric, with the drawings printed on them. I am hoping the whole thing will feel sort of semi-transparent but feel like an enclosure as well. Like you can come and hide there, and feel like you’re in a shelter, but also in a transparent world. The whole thing is white and is meant to blend in with the desert.
The original design for the Chapel was completely different. It was going to be a semi-dome of steel – very rough and industrial – with a column of fire in the center. What I came to was this very Burning Man aesthetic structure. It was astonishing to think how much an event’s predetermined conditions and precedent can influence the way you do a design. I wanted to build something very minimal: earth, fire, air. I think when you leave people with a blank slate – at its best, that’s what contemporary art is.
When you walk into nothingness, it’s almost a meditation. The Chapel gives you a predetermined mythology that you walk into, that you then need to play with and engage with. Nothingness is something you’ll experience when you see the sunrise. Or that sense of nothingness is what you will experience when you close your eyes in the Chapel and listen to the wind chimes. Or in accepting the ambiguity of the Codex’s mythology, you will have that blank space of contemplation.
TFH: There is an Alain de Botton quote on the Chapel’s website. What does it mean?
“What we seek, at the deepest level, is inwardly to resemble, rather than physically to possess, the objects and places that touch us through their beauty.”
MK: He encompasses so much of the way I feel about artwork. When I see things, I don’t want to have it, I want to be it. There were times, particularly when I was living in France, when I was studying painting and in the studio trying to teach myself how to paint. I would look at light going through the windows in the kitchen, and I didn’t want to have it or represent it, I just wanted to be that thing.
“There’s a beautiful quote in Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet: “The deeper sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.””
TFH: Can you discuss the “shadow” element of the structure?
MK: During my first Burn, my friend and I had the most incredible experience. We were out in the middle of the night and we found a place with a spotlight that cast the most perfect shadow. We started dancing with our shadows and for the next three hours, I would stop almost every single person who would come by and invite them to dance with their shadow. Everyone who did it turned into the child version of themselves. Usually, most of my interactions creatively with people is in the studio. Dancing in this way allowed me to meet and impact so many people.
The title is also related to Plato’s Cave. We are born blind, actually, and we aren’t sure of what is going on. We are staring at the fire and seeing these shadows, unaware of what’s truly the meaning of our life. I think that’s beautiful. Instead of bemoaning it, just dance.
TFH: Inspiration: Do you find it or attract it?
MK: Inspiration is a naked need; it’s desire. I don’t think it’s called into being. It’s something in the core of your being that you unearth out of yourself. It can be a painful and aggressive process.
There’s a beautiful quote in Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet: “The deeper sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
The desire to create things can happen very frequently. But great things are created out of this need, that burns really deep into the core of human beings, and that’s why truly great work resonates so intensely. On the other hand, inspiration is a spectrum. At the far end it’s this naked need and desire, and at the other end it’s just an idea, and it’s light, and it can just float there and make people happy.
TFH: What’s one thing you would you change about the world?
MK: We need to completely transform the way we use resources on this planet. There is no need for us to be using processed petroleum products for absolutely everything that we own. That’s one reason Burning Man makes me apprehensive: the amount of waste. We aren’t burning the structure, for example. (It’s going on to the “Live is Beautiful” festival in Las Vegas.)
TFH: What do you hope people get out of the installation?
TFH: What is Love?
MK: It’s the same as inspiration. Love has a very selfless component to it. Love has a paradoxical dynamic, because it’s about you having the experience. And yet it’s also entirely concentrated on the other, so you feel like you lose yourself. Inspiration has that too, because you find a space where you don’t have to be in your own self all the time. You find something bigger to reach towards, more vital and essential than just being. That’s what drives a lot of art: the need to feel that it’s not just this.
Support the artist by purchasing prints at http://mariakreyn.bigcartel.com/category/chapel-of-dancing-shadows-prints
Maria’s other work and limited edition prints can also be found at http://mariakreyn.bigcartel.com/
For more inspirational interviews please check ————> HERE.
More about Burning Man ———–> HERE.
*If you’re interested in more mind-blowing Burning Man art, read our interview with Ken Feldman of Boeing 747 Big Imagination.