On August 31, a Ukrainian performance project created for the Burning Man 2023 festival was presented in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. The installation was created by artists Oleksii Sai and Bohdana Kosmina, and the figure became the first Ukrainian sculpture to take part in the traditional burning of figures at Burning Man, for which the festival organizers annually choose about five works from more than a hundred presented. DTF Magazine asked the artist Oleksii Sai about the installation and his work on it
The installation is a metal Ukrainian coat of arms in a simplified and brutalist style. From the outside, the sculpture is hidden behind an eight-meter wooden box, which is a reference to the constructions used in Ukraine to protect monuments from missile attacks.
As the wooden boards burned away, a metal tryzub, a metaphor for the phoenix that arose from the ashes, became visible.
‘We didn’t want to use intimidation or be intrusive. We wanted to make the performance interesting, to make it attractive. To make people realize that we need to not only be pitied, but taken seriously. We need to show not only our victimhood, but also our strength’, Oleksii explained.
According to him, the monument to Taras Shevchenko in the center of Kyiv inspired him to create a sculpture hidden behind the construction. The artist said that when he was explaining the idea in a comment to an American journalist of CNN, he told about the missile attacks on Kyiv in October 2022, when one of the missiles fell near his house in the city center.
‘She asked me where this idea of protecting monuments came from. I told her how a missile fell 100 meters from my house and hit a children’s playground. And there is a monument [to Taras Shevchenko] near it. The whole street was windowless, the Khanenko Museum was damaged, and the monument remained protected, although it was closer to the place where the missile hit than that street’.
Oleksii added that the idea with the wooden construction is intended to ‘tell about our realities’ to the Western audience: ‘It is a simple work, there is no layering of meanings in it. It should be simple and obvious for perception. The idea of the phoenix rising from the fire is obvious’.
According to the artist, the fact that the festival organizers allowed the burning of a sculpture is a ‘rare phenomenon’. He specified that the performance with the Ukrainian installation was the first among other works selected for burning.
About the project implementation
The initiator of Ukraine’s participation in Burning Man was Vitaliy Deynega, the founder of the ‘Come Back Alive’ foundation and current Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine, who was a member of the first Ukrainian team at the festival in 2015. It was Vitaliy who suggested Oleksii Sai to join the creation of the installation.
Vitaliy explained that ‘the allegory of this work is very simple’: ‘They wanted to destroy us as a nation. But the fire hardened us. We came out of the fire and it only made our skin rougher and made us stronger. We were reborn through fire. And even though we didn’t choose this for ourselves — but we made it through and we continue to make it through every day’.
At Vitaliy’s invitation, Alla Lopatkina, founder of the Ukrainian Resistance Foundation and owner of a logistics company who has lived in the US for over 20 years, also joined the project. It was Alla’s team in Chicago that worked on the original sculpture presented at Burning Man.
Oleksii Sai said that they had been working on the installation in parallel in Ukraine and the United States since the winter of 2023. He and Bohdana Kosmina created the necessary mockups, and Mitya Zinoviev, the head of the ‘Wonder Workshop’ bureau, who previously worked on the installation at the Vernadsky Research Base together with Slava Balbek, was responsible for the engineering design. After that, following the engineer’s design and under Mitya’s guidance, the American team undertook the creation of the sculpture.
Although the full-size physical installation was already being created in the United States, the Ukrainian team of the project burned the prototype as a test run near Kyiv with the support of the organizers of GogolFest. For this purpose, they created a scaled-down prototype to understand how burning the wooden construction would affect the main metal tryzub.
‘Burning Man has an anarchistic appearance. In fact, it is a very serious work with preparation, because the installation, for example, takes place in very extreme conditions, I would say in Martian conditions. That’s why everything has been approved: from the plan for the installation to the plan for the burning’, Oleksii clarified.
Burning Man is an annual festival held in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. In 2023, the festival takes place from August 27 to September 4.
This year Ukraine is represented at Burning Man by another installation — ‘The Hedgehog Temple’. It was presented by the community of Ukrainian Burners. The sculpture became a ‘memorial to Ukrainians who died during the full-scale war’: the sculpture collects stories of deceased artists, painters, musicians and other talented people under a hedgehog-shaped dome.