Burning Man’s Mandala Maker
Gerard Minakawa and His Starry Bamboo Mandala
by Molly Freedenberg
When most people refer to Burning Man
art projects, they usually mean a kick-ass pair of handmade boot
covers or an old beater bicycle spackled with red glitter. Some of
the truly dedicated may be referring to more ambitious ideas:
art-cars tricked out with fire cannons, dance domes decorated with
papier-mâché fish, or an Airstream trailer lined with fuzzy purple
fur. But almost no one undertakes the kind of art piece that
32-year-old Gerard Minakawa — founder of Ukao, a Santa
Barbara-based bamboo furniture company — plans to execute this
year: the Starry Bamboo Mandala.
This 55-foot structure represents the nexus of Minakawa’s
interests and talents: ecologically friendly materials, radical and
complex construction, and design that actually means something.
Constructed completely out of organic materials — 21 tons of bamboo
poles shipped from Colombia, 5,000 feet of manila rope, and more
than 500 dowels — the structure expresses Minakawa’s dedication to
sustainable building practices (as does his plan to donate leftover
materials to Habitat for Humanity, rather than burn them). And
Minakawa, with his small crew that includes S.B. lighting designer
Jeffrey Boynton, are erecting the piece in these two weeks before
Burning Man starts, withstanding 100-degree-plus temperatures, dust
storms, and potential rainfall.
Not content to simply create something
beautiful, Minakawa’s innovative design draws on his research into
the spiritual significance of different star shapes throughout
history — the result will be a piece that looks like a supernova of
bamboo poles from afar and a Star of David embedded within a Star
of Lakshmi (from Hinduism) from inside. Those interested in the
natural magic of mathematics will also be pleased to know that the
structure draws on the Fibonnaci sequence.
“It’s a gift of sacred space,” said Minakawa, who was given a
coveted Burning Man organization arts grant to complete the piece
at this year’s festival, which runs August 28 through September 4.
He expects the light, strong, flexible structure to be a
performance space for Burning Man artists, as well as a climb-able
vantage point from which to view the desert landscape.
But it’s also a gift of remarkable vision, excellent design, and
plain-old elbow grease, all things Minakawa doles out in
bucketloads. The New York native (born to a Japanese-Bolivian
father and Italian-Argentine mother) started Ukao at age 26, after
graduating from Rhode Island School of Design and moving to
Carpinteria to work with Forms+Surfaces. His furniture was so
innovative, he’s been recognized by publications such as the
Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Metropolis, Boston Globe, and
I.D., where he was listed as one of the magazine’s 40 designers to
watch in 2006. He also won first place in the 2002 International
Design Resource Awards.
For his first Burning Man in 2003, Minakawa helped build a
bamboo bridge. Then in 2004, he designed the 20-foot Bamboo
Trapezium, which caused Burning Man’s art curators to encourage his
application for this year’s grant.
With energy left to burn, Minakawa sold or packed up everything
he owned and moved to Bolivia, where he set up a bamboo workshop
and a retail store, consults with nonprofit Aid to Artisans, and is
collaborating with an indigenous Aymaran family on pieces that will
be exhibited in New York City in spring 2007.
Clearly, Minakawa has come a long way from his first bamboo
piece: a pergola for the entrance to Livingreen’s retail store on
Helena Avenue. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows him,
since he’s always on the move, traveling the world in pursuit of
inspiration and innovation. So it’s fitting that his Burning Man
project is called a “mandala” — defined as “container of
essence” — for this project, in all its ambition and beauty, truly
reflects the essence of its illustrious creator.
It Really Is
For more info visit minikawa.com, ukao.com, aidtoartisans.org, and burningman.com
Brian Doherty’s This Is Burning Man
reviewed by Molly Freedenberg
People who go to Burning Man are a notoriously possessive bunch,
profoundly skeptical of the event getting any kind of mainstream
media attention. As a veteran burner, I’m not necessarily any
different, so I approached Brian Doherty’s book This Is Burning Man
with more than my share of doubt.
Would this be some newbie’s love letter to the party that
convinced him to leave his girlfriend and join a men’s group? Would
it be some journalist’s watered-down, narrow-minded version of an
event he’d never experienced? Would it be a propagandist vehicle
for the version of the festival that organizers are always trying
It must be, I figured, because it couldn’t
possibly express the diversity of experiences and interpretations
of this strange phenomenon. It couldn’t capture the varying views
of the thousands of people who flock to Nevada every year, and
their thousands of varying reasons for doing so. It couldn’t
explain both the controversy and the deep passion that Burning Man
always seems to be surrounded by.
But much to my delight, it could and did. Thanks to mystical
powers of dedication, observation, and patience — and thanks to a
rare ability to both participate in and objectively consider
something at the same time — Doherty has accomplished a nearly
impossible feat: A Burning Man book that informs and challenges
burners while also giving those who’ve never heard of the festival
a clear and complete explanation of what the hell this phenomenon
The primary reason this book works so well is that Doherty
seemed to leave no stone unturned, tracking down everyone from
founder Larry Harvey to Burning Man celebrity (and S.B. local) Dr.
Megavolt, from Bureau of Land Management reps to the guy whose 50
stacked pianos started a trend of large-scale absurdist art. There
wasn’t a single rumor or story or important moment in Burning Man
history that he seemed to miss.
But he also weaved it all together in a remarkably engaging,
honest way. He presents his own experience, but never at the
expense of the larger story. When accounts are contradictory, he
lays out both versions (and often, why the contradictions may
exist). As he walks the reader through Burning Man’s chronological
history, he also unravels a narrative about what the festival means
on personal, political, and spiritual levels.
It’s the most comprehensive account of the festival yet, a
must-read for anyone for whom Burning Man means anything. And
that’s saying a lot coming from me, a fellow burner who was
prepared to hate it.
For more on Brian Doherty’s This Is Burning Man, visit thisisburningman.com