Everyone knows about the wild and crazy art installations that grace the annual Burning Man gathering in Black Rock City, Nevada. A communal event that culminates in the symbolic ritual burning of a large wooden figure, Burning Man has become a sensation over the last 33 years, its appeal stretching beyond artists and bohemian types to the rich and wealthy, especially Silicon Valley magnates.
But as organizers prepare to erect the temporary community in the arid desert northeast of Reno again this month, it’s worth noting that there are many more wild and out-there annual art events taking place across the globe. From body painting festivals to sand sculpting competitions, they are a testament to the fact that creativity knows no medium—and no bounds. Here are 14 of the most eccentric.
Dark MOFO, Hobart, Tasmania
Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art has a reputation for being a little dark—the collection includes a sculpture that converts food into poop by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye—but things get downright pagan at the annual Dark MOFO festival. A three-week celebration of the Winter Solstice, the event takes place after nightfall and features large-scale light art installations, a nude swim in the River Derwent, and musical performances (this year’s acts included FKA Twigs and Nicolas Jaar, son of artist Alfredo Jaar, who has a major installation in the museum’s newly completed Siloam extension). Often controversial, the event attracted the censure of animal rights activists in 2017 for featuring Hermann Nitsch’s bloody performance 150.action, in which the butchering of a bull devolves into a Bacchanalian frenzy. It’s no wonder that conspiracy theorists claim the festival is a satanic ritual.
Volcano Extravaganza, Stromboli, Italy
Now in its tenth year, the Volcano Extravaganza is held each July in Stromboli, an island off the coast of Sicily. The brainchild of Italian art collector, philanthropist, and prosciutto heiress Nicoletta Fiorucci, the Volcano Extravaganza, hosted by the Fiorucci Art Trust, brings international artists to the tiny Italian island best known for its volcanic activity and black sand beaches. This year’s recently concluded edition saw Polish artist Maria Loboda serve as the artistic leader, drawing up a program of atmospheric performances from Julie Béna, Federico Campagna, Anthea Hamilton, and others, all centered around the theme of death—all the more morbid considering that active lava flows and eruptions killed a tourist the day before the festival began.
Denver Chalk Festival, Denver, Colorado
For two days each June, Denver turns over its Larimer Square to more than 200 professional artists, who collectively transform the space into an outdoor museum. The juried event goes on rain or shine—this year saw the participants recreate their pieces after not one, but two rainstorms. Chalk art festivals are popular across Europe and the US, dating back 1973, when the town of Curtatone, Italy, held the first Fiera delle Grazie festival to help revive the then-dying Italian art of Madonnari (street painting)—so named for the chalk artists who would sketch the Madonna on sidewalks across the country.
Bombay Beach Biennial, Salton Sea, California
Despite the name, the Bombay Beach Biennial has taken place every year since its founding in 2015. The brainchild of hotelier Stefan Ashkenazy, Johnson & Johnson heiress-turned-arts patron Lily Johnson White, and filmmaker Tao Ruspoli, the immersive art experience takes place in the tiny, 341-person town of Bombay Beach, located on the shores of the Salton Sea, a onetime resort destination now overrun with toxic chemicals that is rapidly drying up. A semi-secret three-day springtime event—to keep the town from being totally overwhelmed by crowds—the biennial has nonetheless caught on, attracting A-list participants like graffiti artist Kenny Scharf. Artist Greg Haberny, who has taken part since the inaugural edition, has even relocated to Bombay Beach part-time, turning an abandoned home into an art installation he’s dubbed the Hermitage Museum, featuring the abstract sculptures he makes from salvaged wood.
American Sand Sculpting Championship, Fort Myers Beach, Florida
This November will mark the 33rd annual American Sand Sculpting Championship, the largest of its kind in the US. Master sand sculptors compete as pairs or single artists, and there is a speed sculpting competition as well as public demonstrations of delicate sand sculpting techniques. There is a separate category for amateurs, who are also invited to create their best monumental works in sand at the ten-day event.
Seattle Erotic Art Festival, Seattle
Long before the Seattle Art Fair, the there was the Seattle Erotic Art Festival, a juried show launched in 2003 by the Pan Eros Foundation to celebrate erotic art of all varieties, from painting and sculpture to performance and poetry. Held annually in April, the festival’s mission is to encourage “the creation, enjoyment, and purchase of erotic art—sparking conversations to ignite personal and cultural evolutions.” All the work is for sale, with prices starting at $200.
World Living Statues Festival, Arnhem, the Netherlands
Seemingly stationary figures come to life, replete with choreography and audience interaction at World Living Statues, which celebrates a unique form of urban art in which performers imitate figurative sculptures. According to the 13-year-old event’s website, there are about 400 professional living statues around the world, but during the biannual October festival and competition, Arnhem “is, quite simply, the place to be for living statues!”
Pageant of the Masters, Laguna Beach, California
An annual production that recreates famous paintings and sculptures from art history in tableaux vivants, or living pictures, the Pageant of the Masters is part of the Laguna Beach Art Show. First held way back in 1932, it has been referenced in both Arrested Development and Gilmore Girls. The production runs for eight weeks every summer, with a 90-minute show accompanied by narration and live music. This year, the theme is “The Time Machine,” with recreations of works by such varied artists as Jake and Dinos Chapman, Johannes Vermeer, Eadweard Muybridge, Norman Rockwell, and Salvador Dalí, with Leonardo da Vinci‘s The Last Supper serving as the finale.
Wara Art Festival, Niigata, Japan
When the rice is harvested in Niigata, Japan, there is a ton of straw, known as wara, left over. It can be used for roofing, livestock feed, or fertilizer, but since 2006, students from Musashino Art University in Tokyo have been transforming some of the excess into monumental golden sculptures. What started with one piece became a festival two years later, and has since grown into a massive exhibition of straw artworks featuring giant dinosaurs, insects, and other animals, taking place at the end of August.
FIGMENT, New York
New York’s favorite free participatory art event just celebrated its 13th year, moving from Governors Island to Roosevelt Island this June. The community-based festival invites anyone and everyone participate, and is known for its large-scale public sculpture and interactive works. About 120 artists took part in 2019, including Somewhere Studio, which created Salvage Swings, this year’s jury-selected City of Dreams Pavilion, an art structure on view and open to the public all summer, not just the two days of the festival.
Nude Art LA, Los Angeles
Nude Art LA was founded in 2018 and has already held three editions, most recently in March. It bills itself as “the fastest-growing and single largest nude art and performance event in California” (who knew there was so much competition nationwide?) and espouses “messages of racial, ethnic, cultural, and sexual-preference and body positivity.” In addition to painting, sculpture, photography, and other traditional art mediums, the event also features a “Naked Fashion Show” of wearable art.
Fertility Fest, London
In 2016, after 11 rounds of unsuccessful IVF, Jessica Hepburn founded Fertility Fest, the world’s first arts festival dedicated to fertility. The annual event is part of a concerted effort to use the arts and sciences together to encourage people to speak openly about their struggles with fertility, to understand the emotional impact of such struggles, and to educate the public about fertility. This year’s event was held at the Barbican in London, and featured performances and programming tackling such challenging subjects as miscarriage, IVF, and egg freezing.
World Bodypainting Festival, Klagenfurt, Austria
Billed as “a celebration of body painting and the staging of the human body as an art object,” the World Body Painting Festival held its 21st edition in June. Artists from some 50 nations gather to create an open air “Bodypaint City,” populated with citizens clad only in elaborately painted designs and posed in staged installations. Unlike, say, New York City’s tip-seeking desnudas, the nudity is an afterthought with these stunning body-painted designs, which transform ordinary people into living canvases.
GIF FEST, Singapore
Who says a GIF can’t be a masterpiece? GIF Fest launched in 2017 with more than 90 original GIFs that spoke to the theme “Spellbound.” It returned for four days in March 2019, this time with over 150 works by more than 40 artists, including British multidisciplinary artist Vince Fraser and the French team Parallel Studio. The free festival, which aims to present the tech-heavy medium as a form of fine art, received over 600 submissions responding to the theme of “Magic.”
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