Share

Art on the Playa: Shogyo Mujo

By Dan Cowles

Shogyo Mujo was conceived as a temporary installation for Burning Man (the name is a Japanese Buddhist term that means “nothing is permanent”)—but the massive 3D light-projection sculpture lives on in images, in lessons learned by its creators, and in future installations. 

The idea of impermanence is central to Burning Man, the annual festival on the alkali flats of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert—where a village of more than 60,000 people and a playa’s worth of art are created and then removed in the course of several days, famously “leaving no trace” behind.

And impermanence is nothing new in the world of event projection art, where projects can take months to go from conception to completion, often for a single use. Then, 90 seconds into the keynote presentation, the piece has come and gone, never to be seen again.

That’s probably why the 30-foot Shogyo Mujo sculpture felt like such a good fit for the transient desert festival—the skull a blank canvas by day and a rich and evolving projected-light experience at night, scaled for the playa and built to burn at the festival’s end.

Shogyo Mujo, a transient 3D projection-mapped skull, is a collaboration between BARTKRESA design, artist Joshua Harker, and staging company WorldStage. According to the Shogyo Mujo website, the project represents the first of the three marks of Dharma, which states that all things are impermanent. This philosophy is visualized through myriad mappings onto the skull; these mappings transform the skull into dozens of unique experiences. Watch the video (left) to see Shogyo Mujo come to life.

WORKING TOGETHER BUT APART

The Shogyo Mujo collaboration began when Bart Kresa and Joshua Harker’s mutual friend Veronique Pittman saw Joshua’s eight-foot Crania Geodesica: Illuminati as part of a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration at the La Calaca Festival in Mexico. She put Harker in touch with Kresa (a master projection artist), and a remote collaboration was born. Harker and Kresa’s team, including art director Vincent Rogozyk and designer Dylan Roscover, worked together but apart—Harker in Chicago, Kresa and his team in Los Angeles—for a year, not meeting until just a couple of weeks before they left for the festival.

Harker worked on the structure, while Kresa, Rogozyk, and Roscover built the technology platform, developed the design and projection workflow, and created the art. They also worked with an extended team of artists and built templates that took advantage of some of Photoshop’s new 3D capabilities; this allowed their team of traditionally 2D designers and illustrators to create 3D art for the project.

TROUBLE ON THE PLAYA

As anyone familiar with Burning Man knows, at the end of the fest, everything must burn, so building materials need to be both flammable and minimally toxic. These requirements influenced the choice of materials for the skull fabrication, which in turn influenced the project’s degree of difficulty. Harker based his design on a geometric model that would be solid and strong once complete, but it was fragile while under construction. Factor in 60-mile-per-hour winds, blinding sandstorms, and bad luck, and there were plenty of construction challenges. Four times the skull was nearly structurally complete, and four times misfortune befell the crew. Working around the clock and trying everything they could think of, the team got close to success, but they were never quite able to get the complete 30-foot skull put together.

Ultimately, they settled for getting just the face of the skull up. The team had mixed feelings, with the joy of seeing the 20-foot face lit up in the desert sky tempered by the knowledge of what could have been. Still, many people came and enjoyed it, and even in its incomplete form, Shogyo Mujo was a crowd favorite. In a time when you can buy “burner kits” of glow sticks and steampunk goggles on the side of the Nevada highway, and when wealthy attendees hire “sherpas” to build and provision their camps, genuine risk and grand ambition are becoming something of a rarity at Burning Man. And with real risk come both the possibility of doing something special and the possibility of failure.

Here, the scale of the piece and the drive to make something really beautiful met the realities of the elements and circumstance, resulting in only partial success—nonetheless, it was a partial success that hinted at a truly glorious and amazing potential.

SHOGYO MUJO REBORN—AND LIVING ON

Now that the playa dust has settled, Shogyo Mujo may not be all that impermanent after all. While the physical structure is gone, the digital assets remain, as does the knowledge gained, and the team has continued to develop both the designs and the technology platform. They have locked down their workflow, are able to fine-tune their projection maps, and can add new art. They’ve also added more interactivity to the platform.

They recently successfully projected in 360 degrees on a 12-foot version of the skull—this time made of foam—at a party at Adobe MAX in Los Angeles, to a very enthusiastic crowd. The project was only a partial success at Burning Man, but in a sense, Burning Man was the field test—really only the beginning of this project—and it will be fun to see where it plays next. Imagine, for example, a 50-foot skull: next year, in the middle of the playa, between the man and the temple. It could be amazing. They’d better get started on it now.

(Learn more about Photoshop’s 3D tools in “Overview of 3D in Photoshop.”)