Burning down the house at a desert festival
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Burning down the house at a desert festival

A Temple is built for Midburn, Israel’s homegrown Burning Man, where participants come to contemplate creation before it all goes up in smoke

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

  • Itamar Paloge and Lior Peleg's "Grandfather" installation from last year's Midburn (Courtesy Faluja.net)
    Itamar Paloge and Lior Peleg's "Grandfather" installation from last year's Midburn (Courtesy Faluja.net)
  • The model of Temple 1, a spiral of energy and fire that will draw Midburners during the five-day festival (Photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
    The model of Temple 1, a spiral of energy and fire that will draw Midburners during the five-day festival (Photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
  • Stacks of two-by-fours ready and waiting for construction at Temple 1 (Photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
    Stacks of two-by-fours ready and waiting for construction at Temple 1 (Photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
  • The early stages of Temple 1, the central installation built by Itamar Polege and Lior Peleg for this year's Midburn (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
    The early stages of Temple 1, the central installation built by Itamar Polege and Lior Peleg for this year's Midburn (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

OLESH, Israel — The kibbutz as a social enterprise may have run its course, but in Israel, communal experiments are still popular. Take Midburn, a week-long desert party based on the American model known as Burning Man.

Now in its second year, this year’s Midburn gathering is expected to bring together nearly 7,000 partygoers in the Negev Desert to hold all-night raves and behold giant interactive art installations, all with the aim of exploring the meaning of life. Israel’s Midburn is the third-largest “Regional Burn,” as Burning Man-licensed events that take place in another country are known.

Midburn plays on the words midbar (Hebrew for desert) and burn, a focal point of any Burning Man event. The festival, founded in San Francisco in 1986 and then moved to the Nevada desert, is described as an experiment in community, art, self-expression and self-reliance.

With the exception of the tickets — which range in price from NIS 480 to NIS 520 ($125-$136) and can only be purchased prior to the event (they’re all sold out this year) — no money is used at Midburn. Participants bring everything with them, including water, food and generators, and set up temporary homes in themed camps that offer everything from music, slushy drinks and dancing to relaxation areas, family-friendly spaces and yoga.

The funds made from ticket sales are used to build the Midburn “city,” including 70 chemical toilets, a fence around the perimeter, and the mandatory fees paid to police and firefighters, said Kim Lasinger, a Midburn organizer.

This year, Midburn organizers were forced to stop preparations several days before the start of Midburn after local police said the festival planners hadn’t obtained all the necessary permits.

“They’re putting the craziest restrictions on us that will cost thousands of shekels,” said Dan Peguine, head of communications for Midburn Israel. “They want us to add closed circuit cameras in the camps, 24/7.”

Peguine said that local police are under the impression that Midburn is “a normal music festival for super young people who are partying.”

“We’re not that,” he said. “We’re an art event, where the average age is 30 and with people from 48 different nations coming here. There are hippies in some camps, and entrepreneurs in others, and celebrities and lawyers, and it’s all about self-expression.”

As the festival is host to 67 art installations and bears a clear directive to help the Negev region by attracting visitors, Peguine said it was difficult to understand why the local authorities were trying to stall Midburn.

Negev police district spokeswoman Nava Tavou said the Midburn organizers were not acting in full compliance with the police force’s requests.

Lior Peleg (left) and Itamar Paloge, creators of Temple 1 for this year's Midburn (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Lior Peleg (left) and Itamar Paloge, creators of Temple 1 for Midburn 2015 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Now the coordinators are battling it out with the police to start the festival on Wednesday and burn their giant art installations as planned at the end of the festival, a significant part of the alternative event that includes a fire ceremony of dancing and drumming.

Last year during the event, which was the first full Burning Man festival in Israel, police denied permission to burn some of the art installations, but eventually allowed participants to set two major art installations ablaze after 24 hours of negotiations.

One of the major installations under discussion is Temple 1, a massive, spherical, wooden structure designed and built by artist Itamar Paloge, also known as Faluja, and artist-builder Lior Peleg. The Temple is designed to act as a place of prayer.

Art for art’s sake

Two weeks ago, Temple 1 was still under construction in Paloge and Peleg’s backyard, a wide open space bordered by farm fields of Olesh, a moshav outside Netanya, just a short drive from Ikea. The temple is an experiment in engineering and recycling, far from the Allen wrenches and diagrams of the Swedish furniture giant.

Paloge and Peleg’s team created a Kickstarter campaign to fund the temple, which they’ve paid for out of their own pockets. Once completed it will be a centerpiece at the festival, only to be burned to ash at the end as tradition dictates (temples built for the American Burning Man festivals get burned down as well).

That’s not usually, however, the end result of Paloge’s works. A graduate of Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, he’s had giant artworks and carefully graffitied walls viewed at the Israel Museum, Tel Aviv Museum, Holon Design Museum, local galleries and Tel Aviv’s Google Campus.

'The other boy from South Tel Aviv,' an installation made by Itamar Paloge that appeared at the Israel Museum's Contact Point event in 2011 (Courtesy Faluja)
‘The other boy from South Tel Aviv,’ an installation made by Itamar Paloge that appeared at the Israel Museum’s Contact Point event in 2011 (Courtesy Faluja)

But when he first heard about Burning Man after seeing pictures of its installations he made his way to the event in the States, ready to be awed by the artistic scope of the revered festival.

He was disappointed; the art installations that year weren’t what he had anticipated. What did influence Paloge was the the attendees’ free-spirited and open-minded attitudes, a “radical self-expression” that he saw as unique.

It wasn’t the same for Peleg, the son of an architect/sculptor whose own Burning Man experience in 2011 was everything he’d ever imagined. He recalled a nine-story-high wooden skyscraper built with a crane imported from Los Angeles, and came back to Israel ready to participate in Midburn when it was launched last year.

The two men met through their fiancées, who are sisters. Now the brothers-in-law-to-be are also next-door neighbors, living in two rambling homes connected by one kitchen renovated in experimental fashion by Peleg. There are rock-climbing grips attached to one living room wall, swing shutters for the bathroom door — where a big shaggy dog called Silk tends to barge in — and a long copper pipe that stands in as the faucet on the bathroom sink.

Sound alternative? It is. But it’s also homey, welcoming and well-organized. In Olesh, besides the several dozen people helping build the temple, there are also food teams whipping up fresh tahini, salads and lemonade for lunch and others handling logistics and work schedules. They rest on Friday and Saturday, said Peleg, because they need a Sabbath from their 16-hour workdays.

'Geometric Graffiti,' one of Itamar's Paloge's works (Courtesy Faluja)
‘Geometric Graffiti,’ one of Itamar’s Paloge’s works (Courtesy Faluja)

There’s no profit to be made from Midburn, just a communal effort to engage in the act of creation.

“It’s about special people, and it attracts people at different times in their lives, as well as a lot of art and new ideas,” said Peleg, whose father is also attending this year.

Last year Peleg and Paloge created “Sabale,” Grandfather, a 5.5 meter (18 foot) bent-over elderly man made from scraps of wood. Lit up with a red heart at night, he was meant to symbolize ancient wisdom and something eternal, said Paloge, “something that always was and will always be there, lingering.” As with all the installations, it didn’t last more than a week, though.

He was there to “spread the love,” added Peleg. “He’s been through a lot, seen a lot — and he has what to give to the young people.”

Paloge and Peleg's 'Sabale' or Grandfather, which was lit up with LED lights each night at last year's Midburn (Courtesy Faluja)
Paloge and Peleg’s ‘Sabale’ or Grandfather, which was lit up with LED lights each night at last year’s Midburn (Courtesy Faluja)

Th two were inspired by the way their art became a living, breathing entity at Midburn, where people would go to see it at any time of day and bring their friends, old and new.

“We only understood the power of this kind of thing when we got there, to reach 3,500 people and then really understand what it is you’re trying to bring, that’s powerful,” said Paloge. “It’s a city that lives around art, and it unfolds itself to you and to the artists. There are no boundaries. You get there and wow, this is how I want people to experience what I make.”

This year’s Temple 1 offers a different perspective on life. Built according to a model that sat on a sun-bleached table next to their workspace, the sphere has six angled paths, each of which loop around to offer views of Sde Boker, the nearest town, from one side and views of the open desert from the other side. There is a center hall that is nine meters in diameter, with a symbolic, sacred fire that will burn throughout the festival.

“It creates movement,” said Peleg of the fire. “It’s a revolving spiral of energy.”

Paloge and Peleg spent two months building Temple 1, working with a team of around 60 volunteers. It’s a far larger project than last year’s Grandfather, said Peleg and required more engineering and planning since people will be walking up and around the paths of the Temple.

It has a feel similar to that of Big Bambu, the massive bamboo structure that sat in the Israel Museum’s sculpture garden until mid-April and delighted visitors with its curving, rope-tied paths and perches for viewing Jerusalem.

Constructing Big Bambu at the Israel Museum last spring (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash 90)
Constructing Big Bambu at the Israel Museum last spring (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

“This a place apart from the festival, from the party, and it allows people to enter, to remove themselves from what’s going on outside,” said Paloge of his Temple. “We create this kind of space for people who don’t believe in God, but do connect to another concept or belief of practice.”

Midburn 2015 in the Negev, May 20-24.

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