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Inside the Burning Man Installation Dedicated to Grief and Transformation

At the center of the 'Śiṣya' is a 16-foot-tall oblique structure where Burners are encouraged to write their own personal stories of loss.
Images courtesy the artist

As Burning Man kicks off this week The Creators Project takes a look at some of the exciting new art installations going up in Black Rock City this year. The Śiṣya (pronounced Shi-shya) is an evocative wooden installation comprised of two adjacent walkways that spiral out from an oblique, 16-foot-tall center. Artists Krista Sanders and Rob Bell designed the installation’s abstract pattern and participatory structure to encourage reflection on loss and personal transformation.


Every single design choice made for The Śiṣya was made with symbolic purpose. The project’s circinate design is intended to signify the circular nature of our thoughts about grief: as the viewer moves closer to the center structure, the outer walls around them get higher and higher to reflect, “the increasing intensity of emotion as we approach our core truths,” says Sanders in a brief informational video.

A side-view rendering of the Śiṣya

In sanskrit, the word śiṣya means student. The name was given to remind us that life’s hardships can be a teacher—standing at the installation's center represents a capacity to acknowledge, reflect, and learn from our grief. At the very center of the installation hang two heart-shaped panels engraved with individual sections from the Rilke poem, "Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower." Says Sanders, “Walking towards the center of the piece represents walking towards the center of this emotional storm, and the core of everything that is within you.” Once they’ve reached the center, viewers are encouraged to write their stories of transformation and loss on the walls of the installation for their peers to look over. The project is about letting go: acknowledging hurt and absence, and absolving yourself from that pain. At the end of the festival week, Śiṣya will be burned as a symbolic release of all our collective grief.

Overhead rendering of the Śiṣya

The construction team is led by Rob Bell, the founder of Zonotopia and a burner artist since 2004. The Śiṣya is a natural progression from Bell’s abstract pavilion-like structures. Bell says that Śiṣya will incorporate many of the design elements that he has cultivated over the last decade.


The frame of Śiṣya was designed using a 3D modeling software program called SketchUp. The artists used a composite model of the integral components in Bell’s Zonotopia installations, in which the center is a four-frequency “spiralohedron.” The outer walls of the spiral are made up of intricate panel designs that indicate the directionality. Sanders writes in an email, “The converging lines in the panel designs also reflect the core concept of allowing challenging life experiences to become a part of you rather than fighting against them.” After the panels had been attached to 3D model, the panel designs were transferred into a carving program called VCarve which lays the blueprint for the CNC router.

The structure is made up a little over 250 panel blanks of 3/4 inch sheets of pine plywood. The design was cut into both sides of the wood, sanded down by hand, and then sent to the final stage of beveling the edges, and was put together in Black Rock City using glue and a 500 slat joinery system—an effort to avoid the use of metal screws to reduce the amount of MOOP (matter of out place) created by the installation. Since the project’s inception, Śiṣya has received approximately 70 total volunteers, including the 45 festival goers who signed up to help with the burn perimeter and the project’s Leave No Trace team.

The project crowd sourced over $15,000 from their IndieGogo campaign to cover the cost of transportation and materials. The Śiṣya team is currently in the desert at Black Rock City. For information about the project, head over to their IndieGogo page.


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