David Best: ‘My favourite material is people’
Known for the temples he builds for the Burning Man event in Nevada, David Best has this year brought his idea to Derry~Londonderry. He talks about how his art helps people to deal with grief
by ANNA McNAY
In recent years, Californian artist David Best’s temples have become synonymous with the annual Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada, USA, where he first built one in 2000. Their burning on the final night of the week-long event offers a more peaceful and contemplative finale after the previous night’s burning man extravaganza. Over the years, Best’s temples have grown in size and attracted increasing numbers of visitors – many of whom bring personal artefacts, letters, photographs and items of clothing to pin to the interior or place at the altar, seeking, in the ultimate fire, a sense of release, often from violent and turbulent events, such as rape or suicide.
This March sees Best’s first grand-scale international temple being constructed – and ceremonially burned – in Derry~Londonderry, Northern Ireland, a place where bonfires have a significant past of their own dating from the Troubles. Studio International met Best (born 1945) in London shortly before construction began.
David Best: Do you know how much Damien Hirst is worth? A billion dollars! Damien Hirst is worth $1bn. What an odd situation.
Anna McNay: It is, indeed. What do you make of things like that?
DB: Well, I still get into trouble with artists for saying this, but I think, in a challenged community, it’s inappropriate to spend a large amount of money on a piece of sculpture, or on a budget for public art. If we have that much money to spend, we should spend it on a classroom or a kitchen or an educational programme. I think art should reflect the community and not the economy. I recently worked on a project in inner-city Detroit, where it would have been extremely inappropriate for me to spend a lot of money on a piece of sculpture. People were outside picking up tin cans to make a living, and here an artist was going to come in and spend X amount of dollars on a piece of sculpture? Fortunately, I caught myself on that and made the sculpture out of junk. Not even junk, but things that were just not of value. It’s about public art. It shouldn’t be about money. Even if you do a project that costs money, you have to be pretty discreet about it, or else what the hell are you doing?
AMc: How do you fund your projects? I know for Temple in Derry~Londonderry you got some money from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and through Kickstarter. Presumably they’re not all cheap?
DB: Let’s see, how do I fund my projects? I’m going to give you a really dumb answer. I was going to solicit money for a project in San Francisco and I was in a $4m loft with the mayor of San Francisco. Earlier that day, someone who was homeless had gone and got a money order for $20 in order to commit to my project. So I said to the mayor: “I’ve already got the money I need to build this – I’ve got 20 clean dollars.” Of course, I solicited more funds, but that meant a lot to me, what that homeless person had done. How I solicit generally is through Kickstarter and fundraisers. I have people who have been following me for years whom I can tap for money. I’m a junk sculptor, a found-object sculptor, so I’m continually in garbage cans looking for material. I’m pretty economical with what I build. I use as much scrap as I can get, so it’s not a real major cost. The main costs for this project, for example, have been transportation for some of my crew and a training programme – we’re putting a lot of money into that. All of my people are volunteers.
AMc: Tell me something about the training programme. You will be working together with the local communities to build the temple for Derry~Londonderry and there will be apprentice, back-to-work and voluntary training opportunities, including up to 40 onsite placements as part of a work experience scheme. This seems like an invaluable opportunity for local people.
DB: One of the people who worked with me on the project in Detroit said to me at the end that it had been the best three weeks of his life. I thought: “My God, I have been working on this for so long and I have thousands of wonderful weeks in my life.” There’ll be a handful of people who are going to learn to use a saw or a drill, yes, but, more than that – and I don’t know how to put it so it doesn’t sound like I’m boasting – I’m going to teach people how to love the work. That’s what I do. I mean, I love the hell out of what I do. The people who work with me, we’ve been working together over many projects, and they just love working. We don’t ever really stop working, we just get into it and enjoy it. So I think the training I’m going to offer these people is simply how to enjoy it. That’s my goal at the end of the two months.
AMc: How were the volunteers selected? Did everyone who applied get in?
DB: I brought 20 people over from the US: a couple were people I don’t know well, but who’d reached out to me and really wanted to work on this project, but the rest were people who have been working with me for a number of projects and know how to do it. Of the people I’m interviewing in Derry~Londonderry, I think there are maybe another 40 people I’m going to be involved with. Certainly anybody who wants to come and work will be interviewed. My only rules are based on safety and courtesy. As long as someone can fit in with that, that’s fine. I have zero tolerance for alcohol on the site. I’m very strict about that because I work with people who are in recovery and I want to provide a safe environment for them. With regards to skill level, I go from zero to 10. It doesn’t matter. I can put someone with a journeyman and they can train. I don’t have a requirement in terms of that.
AMc: Can we come back to talk about the temples in a minute and just talk a little bit about you first? You’ve said that you wanted to become an artist when you were six. How did you know at that age?
DB: I’ve been an artist all my life. My father – my second father, whom some people would call stepfather – was a graphic artist. I remember, at six years old, when I drew with him, that became what I wanted to do. It became my profession. People often ask me how I make a living out of it. Plumbers make a living out of being plumbers. I don’t see myself as any different from a plumber or a journalist or a banker. It’s my profession and it’s what I do. Sometimes a journalist does real well and sometimes it’s pretty thin, right? There’s no guarantee, but I’ve been there all the way through. The only thing you have to do is love your work. I’ve been pretty true to my work and it’s paid me back.
When I was young, I wanted to be a printmaker. When I applied to college, the printmaking classes were closed and the sculpture department needed somebody, so I was taken on there to fill the quota. I became a sculptor instead of a printmaker. Serendipity. But I always liked the rhythm of printmaking, so when I work, I make a lot of things, almost as if I’m a printmaker.
Recently, my wife asked why I didn’t try making some paintings, because sculptures are always such a pain to ship and store. So the first painting I did was 18 feet [5.5 metres] long. It didn’t make a lot of sense for me to try to downscale.
AMc: I was going to ask about your other work. Obviously, you’re best known for Burning Man, but do you still make other work as well?
DB: I’ve done a lot of stuff. I’ve done automobiles. I’ve done 38 cars, one-and-a-half buses … I’d been commissioned to do a car and there was no material. The next day, all this material arrived from the Salvation Army. I was finishing the car, and they said to me: “Oh, by the way, we told the Salvation Army you’d do a bus for them.” Well, I hadn’t contracted to do a bus, so I said: “OK, I’ll make you a deal. I’ll do half the bus and you’ll pay me for the other half.” And they didn’t, so I just did half. I drew a line right down the middle of the bus.
I’ve done figurative sculpture stuff, found-object stuff. I think the big change in terms of who I am right now as an artist is that I’m more concerned with working with hundreds of people. If I were to think of what my favourite material is, it’s people. What I’ve done in the past has led me to the position where, who knows how many people I’m going to touch.
AMc: How did you first get involved with Burning Man in 2000?
DB: Burning Man is like a big party, sort of like Glastonbury or Electric Picnic, only a little different because it’s more art based. One year, someone finally invited me up there. It was kind of fun. I brought some junk and made some stuff, but it wasn’t of any consequence for me. Then I found this material at a toy dinosaur factory, the scrap from a five by five sheet with all the dinosaurs cut out of it. If you got two sheets, you ended up with these symmetrical shapes, real simple to use. I looked at these pieces and thought how great they’d be to work with. So I took 300 or 400 of these sheets up to the desert. I was working with this young kid called Michael Hefflin, a real handsome kid, a ladies’ man, a Shakespearean actor. He made swords, got in trouble, was a bit of a wild kid, but was just starting to get out of trouble. He asked if there was anything else I needed him to do one evening, and I said no. So he left and got killed by a motorcycle going at 140mph. The other kids I was working with had never experienced death before and, at the grave, they said: “Michael would have wanted to go to Burning Man, so we should go.” So, when we went to Burning Man, we brought this material up there and started building something. They were still grieving and, as they built it, it became a tribute to their friend. In addition, maybe 200 or so other people put names of people they’d lost into this thing …
AMc: Did you invite them to?
DB: No, they just got it, maybe it was osmosis. Very unceremoniously, we set fire to it and burned it. Then Burning Man asked me to come back the next year and build a bigger thing, a temple. My work has always been about issues like death and dying, but I asked myself, if I were going to build a temple, what would it be dedicated to, because I don’t have a religion. Then I realised that one of the hardest things to deal with in our culture is suicide. When I built the temple, I said: “If you’ve had a brother or a friend who has taken his or her life, the most sacred place at the centre of the temple is for you.” That year, 500 people who’d had suicide in their lives put names in the centre and 10,000 people put names all around. We called it the Temple of Tears, which was a no-brainer, really. You can imagine what people did when they walked up to it – they started crying. So I said to Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man: “I’m going to do a comedy club next year, you know?” I called the second temple the Temple of Joy. That year, people brought jokes. There was a big poster of a father sitting in a hospital bed saying: “This food tastes like dog shit!” People brought joy at their losses. There was still grieving and still crying, but there was an element of humour to it.
I went from being a gallery artist to working with the community on grief. I’d done a lot of work previously addressing issues such as cancer, but when I did this work in the desert, people just opened up. That first year, a man came up to me – an Eddie Bauer kind of guy, regular clothes, no piercings, no tattoos – and looked at me and said: “My son committed suicide in seventh grade.” I’ve talked about this guy so many times now, but I don’t know who he is. One day I’m going to meet him again because he changed my life. I’m in the basement of museums, in the warehouse. People change their house and style and my work no longer fits. But this man went home to his wife and daughter and said, as far as I can envision: “Your brother’s OK now.” That’s a piece of work that’s never going to fall out of fashion. It’s for generations. If I can go to Derry~Londonderry and make a piece of work that’s going to give some peace to someone whose father was killed by a Protestant, or whose brother was killed by a Catholic, that’s what it’s all about. My work has moved on from that place where I was promised that it would always survive – a museum – where, actually, it’s just going to be put in a basement or deacquisitioned – to here. You’re not going to deacquisition forgiveness. That’s what I do now.
AMc: So how did you come to be invited to Derry~Londonderry?
DB: I have a house in southern Ireland, so I’ve been familiar with Ireland for many years. Helen Marriage [from Artichoke, a creative company that works with artists to put on events in public spaces] contacted me two years ago when she was doing Lumière as part of the City of Culture celebrations and asked me if I would come and do a temple. They didn’t get the budget in the end, but she really kept after it. I didn’t realise how committed she was to the project. She fought to make it happen. She believed in it. It’s pretty remarkable. She saw that we could change something. That’s how it happened. She stuck it through. She’s a pretty determined woman – I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.
AMc: Bonfires have a particular history in Derry~Londonderry.
DB: Exactly, it’s perfect. But one of the things I really want to emphasise is that I’m not coming to Derry~Londonderry to try to change their tradition of the Protestants’ fire and the Catholics’ fire. I’m just offering an additional option where they can build a fire together, where both sides of the community can come together and make a fire as one – one that’s based on healing and forgiveness versus ridicule and scorn.
AMc: Have you done the design already? How long does it take, generally, to design the temples?
DB: [At this point, Best reaches for my notes and begins sketching.] So, we’ve got to get up to 70 feet, right? [Two minutes later.] So, this is about how long it takes to design one. I know, when I build a temple, there are several requirements. One, you have to figure out how you’re going to accommodate, let’s say, for Derry~Londonderry, around 30,000 people. There has to be enough space inside for a large altar. That altar has to be able to take blocks of wood, shoes, photographs. There has to be enough wall surface so that people can draw on the walls and sign their names. It has to be so delicate, so gentle, that it can take a rape, and so strong that it can handle that rape. The temple has to be so beautiful and uncompromised that a person who has been violated will come up to it and go past into a place of forgiveness.
And we’re building with junk, remember. The temple is never going to be perfect; the role of the temple is to make someone feel perfect. The building can go to hell – it’s more important who goes inside it. I believe that strongly. The building itself should never be more important than the people.
AMc: Well, the building doesn’t survive …
DB: The building doesn’t survive, no. Which comes to your next question: How do you feel about making something that doesn’t survive? Right?
AMc: Well, I was going to ask if you’d ever really wanted not to have to burn it at the end.
DB: Ah, well, yes and no. I did one building once, a temple, and you had to walk about a quarter of a mile to get right into it. There were bridges and it was really ornate. When we finished the temple, I was really in awe of it – it was gigantic and gorgeous and really pretty. I was halfway up inside, walking through with a crew member, and I realised that I’d not be able to turn around and look at it because the next time I looked it was going to be being burned. I started to walk down the steps on the other side and didn’t look around because I couldn’t. Then I noticed this young girl who was straying off to the side and I realised, no, you can’t do that. That’s suicide. You have to keep walking. It’s life. There will be some really beautiful parts of life and some really ugly parts of life, but you have to keep walking – you have to keep going through it. I thought: “Goddammit, I didn’t realise that was what I had built!” I had to keep on walking away from it without looking back. It was really hard and really emotional. That was the only time I’ve had a reservation.
People put thousands and thousands of things into the temples, but one year someone brought a suicide letter from Vietnam. It was a long poem and it had a return line of: “I have a gun, it’s under my bed.” Underneath it, someone had typed in on the card: “Hector finally took the gun to his head and killed himself.” They’d had that letter for 40 years and they brought it to put into the temple, to share. I promise people that if they bring things to the temple, they won’t be made into a souvenir. The way to protect it is to burn it.
AMc: That’s presumably where a lot of people get their release and absolution from?
DB: Yes, it doesn’t come back. Someone last year brought a dress with blood on it from a rape – and that’s gone now, it’s not coming back. It’s not going to be resurfacing, that dress, that memory. That’s the reason for something being burned. To seal it. To protect it.
Again, it comes back to the temple having to be strong enough to take the ugliest thing. And it’s not important what it looks like at the end. When you make it and you open it up to the public, it belongs to them. And, hopefully, it’s beautiful enough and strong enough that it can take all of the bullshit.
AMc: You’ve talked about it not being yours anymore once you’ve made it, and I know there have been a couple of years recently where you’ve stepped back completely and let someone else take over. Why was that, and was it difficult to let go?
DB: Yes. I think there are about 70,000 people who attend Burning Man each year now and the temple has become a tradition there. Everybody who comes knows: Saturday night it’s the man, Sunday night it’s the temple. You could put a box there and people would still know what it was. I wanted to keep it open, to give other people a chance.
A basic rule when you build the temple – especially in Derry~Londonderry – is that you have to tread very lightly. There’s two sides to that: one is that it’s somebody else’s culture and somebody’s else’s country; the other is that it’s all one. We are here on Earth just as visitors. We are responsible for the soil in China as well as in California. In that, there are no boundaries. But there’s also respect. You can’t be haughty. You have to be very humble and very quiet. Some people have taken the temple on, thinking they’re going to become somebody, become a celebrity, from building it. That hurts, for me to see that. It’s so beyond that. It’s such a privilege to make something for someone who’s really had some bad shit happen to them. Once it’s built, it doesn’t matter if it’s perfect. People come and put their stuff in it. When we finish the temple in Derry~Londonderry, for a minute it’s going to look good, and then it’s going to start getting covered in all that stuff, and the pretty altar is going to get covered in notes and suicide letters and pictures. It changes.
I went back and did one at Burning Man again last year just because someone who was going to do it didn’t. But I want to give other people a chance now. I think this is like a real evolution for me, to do Derry~Londonderry. We did a small one in southern Ireland a while back, but this is the first large international one. We’ll see where it leads.
I just did a train station in California. That was in steel. That was a great experience. I’m looking to do some more work in steel.
AMc: That’s obviously permanent work, then?
DB: Well, as permanent as anything is. I mean, we melt bronze down to make bullets, right?
Temple by David Best, Derry~Londonderry, 14-21 March 2015, is produced by Artichoke and supported by Arts Council Northern Ireland, templederry-londonderry.com