In the early hours of Thursday, in the middle of the ephemeral city that rises in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert each summer, a 26-foot-tall, 13-foot-wide box was set ablaze. The flames formed a column in the sky, engulfing the wooden tower for over 20 minutes before it collapsed to reveal a secret monument hidden within: a giant steel phoenix representing the resilience of war-torn Ukraine.
Per its name, the Burning Man arts and music festival sees attendees set fire to a wooden effigy each year. But other installations end in ashes too, built to be burned down after their short lifespans.
This one, titled “Phoenix,” was the work of 14 artists and fabricators in both Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and Chicago. In the moments before Thursday’s “burn,” audio of explosions and air raid sirens rang out around the installation while an opera singer arrived, unplanned, to perform a song in Ukrainian.
Speaking to CNN on the phone shortly after, the project’s Ukrainian American lead producer, Ellen Lopatkina, said the artwork represented the “rebirth of our identity.” She added that reaction from festival attendees had been “extremely emotional.”
“The fire, the cleansing, the forging and seeing that there was something inside that is not just complete collapse … resonated very deeply with people.”
Symbols of defiance
For the opening days of Burning Man, which began Sunday, “burners” — the nickname commonly used by festival-goers — were left guessing what might be hidden in the mysterious box.
The wooden structure itself held symbolic meaning: It was designed to echo the casings that have been erected around public monuments in towns and cities across Ukraine to protect them from Russian shelling.
The minimalist phoenix design, rising from the ashes as a show of strength, was also symbolic, shifting in perspective when viewed from different angles. From the front, the sculpture also resembles the tryzub, or trident, another name for the coat of arms Ukraine adopted in 1992 after gaining independence.
“It’s important to show that Ukrainians are not just victims of aggression but we … are a big culture,” said Oleksiy Sai, one of the artists behind “Phoenix,” on a video call from Kyiv on Wednesday.
Sai wasn’t present when “Phoenix” burned, though the event was live-streamed using SpaceX’s satellite internet service, Starlink.
The artist had attended Burning Man before, however, and previously designed an installation for the festival. This year, he collaborated with social activist Vitaliy Deynega and artist Bogdana Kosmina, the latter of whom had already explored the idea of shielded monuments at the 2022 Venice Biennale.
“I live in the very center of Kyiv and all our monuments are covered,” Sai said, referring to the wooden infrastructure and piled-high sandbags that have become symbols of defiance as the country attempts to protect its cultural heritage.
Show of strength
Since 1986, when the first 8-foot-tall “Burning Man” was set alight, the gathering has grown from some 20 people in San Francisco to tens of thousands in Black Rock City, with the festival expecting up to 87,000 attendees this year.
Sai said that he and Kosima hoped that burning “Phoenix” could help bring further attention to Ukraine’s plight.
“We are more than just people who suffer,” he said. “We’re not suffering — actually everyone is working hard now in Ukraine.”
Hours after the flames had died down, the site of the fire was still smoldering, Lopatkina said. And over the coming days, a smoke machine will continue to blow smoke through the phoenix’s head, while a fire effect will be projected onto its body.
Lopatkina also expressed hope that the sculpture will keep Ukraine in the public consciousness at a time when, she said, the world is talking “less and less” about the conflict.
“We wanted to show the world that Ukraine — despite the war, despite the hardship, despite the losses — is still producing, innovating and creating art,” she added. “It is not only a productive member of the world society, but also the heart and soul of that part of Europe.”