2005 Mar 5
By Katy Butler
Interview with artist David Best.
ONE WINTER DAY FIVE years ago, junk artist David Best was rummaging inside a dumpster behind the B.C. Bones model dinosaur factory in Petaluma when he found a trove of what manufacturers call “drop” – the discards that remain after industrial processes. It was sheets of plywood, cut into skeletal frames and traceries, from which dinosaur bone shapes had been cut out by a computerized rotor. The repeating, filigreed patterns looked like slices of hollowed-out bones themselves, or crude wooden lace, or parts for a Moorish temple frieze, if spiders on LSD had designed Moorish temples.
“At first I didn’t know what the hell to do with it,” Best told me recently. “But what’s neat about this stuff is that it’s really user-friendly. If you have identical panels, you can flip them and they become mirror images. You can make a mandala. I can hand an unskilled person this stuff, and they start seeing it.”
Best trucked the drop back to his compound on Sonoma Mountain and went back repeatedly for more. In the summer of 2000, he and a crew of volunteers prepared to take truckloads of it up to the Burning Man art encampment in the Black Rock desert near Gerlach, Nevada and build a temple. “We were going to build a pretty thing and burn it,” Best recalled. Not long before their construction date, a crewmember named Michael Hefflin — a wild, good-looking 26-year-old Petaluma boy who rode a motorcycle, made his own swords, and loved to act in Shakespeare plays — was killed speeding on his motorcycle at 140 miles per hour under a full moon.
“We go up to Burning Man anyway, because we had planned to, and as we build, we’re thinking about Michael and doing our best,” Best said quietly recently, over tea at his kitchen table. “We put a picture of him inside it. When people asked what we were doing, we said we were building a temple as a tribute to a friend of ours. Automatically people started saying, ‘Well, my brother killed on a motorcycle.’ And from there it just snowballed.”
Best invited visitors to write messages to people they’d lost on blocks of wood and place them inside the temple. In the course of Burning Man, more than 2,000 people left photographs, mementoes, Bibles, ashes, notes to miscarried children, and simply tears. On the night the temple was torched, Burning Man itself was transformed from a wild art party into a ritual mourning space reminiscent of Pearl Harbor, the AIDS quilt, or the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial: public, ragged, human and sacred.
Since then, Best — whose encrusted “art cars” and porcelain sculptures were already in museums — has become internationally known for his sacred structures at Burning Man, with their visual echoes of Thai temples, beached Viking ships, and the Taj Mahal, all built out of layer on layer of fanned, latticed, plywood drop. One, called “The Temple of Tears,” commemorated suicide. Built out of discarded materials, it honored the most disowned of human acts.
Last month, Best was forced to dismantle his latest sacred public art – a smaller “Chapel of the Day Laborer” half-built outside the Bellam Produce Market in the Canal District of San Rafael. Central American immigrant women had prayed before the statue of Mary inside it; hundreds of day-laborers signed petitions to save it; and others quietly watched Best and his crew tear it down February 3. (The project had the support of the market’s business owner, but not her landlady, who got it red-tagged.) Best is now designing a similar chapel for Detroit, to include a Jesus and to be built out of old car parts and placed on purchased land.
I asked Best last week whether his first temple would have been the same if his friend had not died. “It would have been nothing,” he said.
We talked over tea in the kitchen of the peaceful, high-ceilinged house on Sonoma Mountain Road that his wife, teashop proprietor Maggie Roth, designed. Outside the window, horses fed. The 120-acre property also held three Airstream Trailers, several barns, studios and outbuildings, and three “art cars” – one of them a Cadillac encrusted with mosaics of broken mirror, scaled red buttons, a chrome teapot, and rows of seashells, dice, glass hearts, plastic skulls and Chinese teacups.
Best is 60 years old, small, intense and vigorous. A graduate of the Art Institute, he looks more like a carpenter than a fine artist. He was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt reading The Temple: Burning Man 2002, and he frequently leapt up from his chair at the kitchen table to illustrate a point.
Q. Would people have called that first temple sacred?
A. They would have called it cool. But it took his death to make it work.
Q. It seems odd. You were best known for “art cars” commissioned by museums and decorated with the help of volunteers. Now you build sacred spaces out of scrap wood. How did you get from A to B?
A. I don’t think I even know. I never set out to become a person who goes out and builds temples. But where the car projects had been mindless, they started to change for me through time. I don’t mean to sound self-righteous, and you’re going to get this on tape, but I had to follow my work. I’ve sometimes gone in directions where I’ve compromised my work and tried to make it to sell…
Q. –any examples?
A. That’s dangerous, because it might be something someone bought —let’s just say work I’ve cranked out that doesn’t have spark in it. But when I follow my work, it has given me — as if it’s a real person or it’s alive – it’s given me opportunities. My God. Can you imagine anything cooler than having your art make it possible for someone to walk up to you and say, my son committed suicide and you set him free? That happened at Burning Man. Wow. Wow. My art gave me that. It’s a privilege when someone confesses their sins.
Q. What about the temples makes that possible?
A. One year [at Burning Man] a guy came up to me crying, and he said, ‘Why can I cry here when I don’t cry in my own church?’ Well, he’s in the desert. His cell phone won’t work. He’s lost his keys. The ice chest is leaking all over the inside of his car. His girlfriend left him for someone in another camp. His mushrooms are bad. He’s worn out.
You have to make it so that people get worn out. Maybe that’s why churches have steps, or mazes. There’s got to be a journey. There need to be barriers, even for people in wheelchairs – a spiritual barrier.
Q. Anything else?
A. The temple is imperfect. It’s made out of junk, by craftsmen of various skill levels. So the building is imperfect but the people who go in it are perfect. Chase Manhattan banks are perfect. The architecture is flawless. The new ten million dollar welfare office in Sacramento is stunning architecture — for a woman who has nothing to walk in to? I mean, what the f— is going on ? It’s architecture at the expense of people.
Q. What are your own sacred roots?
A. I’m so – what’s the opposite of sacred?
Q. Profane? Secular?
A. Profane. I am prejudiced against religion. I am not sacred inside me. I’m crazy like everybody else. I don’t hide it, but I have darkness.
Q. What’s your darkness?
A. [Laughs, shakes head.] Oh no. Uuh-uh.
Q. It’s my job to ask. So why are you prejudiced against religion?
A. My first wife ended up becoming a born again Christian, and I had to too in order to stay married. Stay away from that stuff. It’s just creepy. I’m not prejudiced against blacks or even Republicans but I have a prejudice against religion. So I build a temple in the desert. It’s non-denominational. Anyone can come in. And I know that the temple can’t be sacred.
A. One year there was a wimpy, hippy guy climbing on the temple. And another guy, maybe from South Central, wherever, a big tough guy with gangster tattoos on his back. He’s saying, Hey, man get off of there! This is sacred! The wimpy guy was just stoned but he was also a little bit of a jerk, and the other guy had already ripped a button off his hippy vest. I said, Look, it’s not sacred. If it was sacred we wouldn’t let Jews in – I should have said Baptists –only pure people could come in. And the hippy guy started saying, “I’m sick of your anti-Semitic—“ and then Boom! The guy from South Central punched him. [laughs]
The whole point of my tirade is that I don’t particularly like Republicans. But I can’t make a temple that excludes Republicans. Because if that Republican’s son has just gotten killed in a car crash, I don’t want him to stop and say this isn’t for me.
Q. Some people would say you’ve just given a beautiful definition of the sacred. What did you do the second year?
A. I thought, what do I dedicate it to? I’m more of a carpenter for the church than the creator of doctrine. So I think, what’s the hardest thing to deal with? And suicide came up automatically. Not being able to be buried in a graveyard. In the community at Burning Man, we hold sacred the things the outside world wants to put shame on.
We called it The Temple of Tears. I said to people who came into it, your left hand represents the suicide and your right hand represents a child who died of leukemia, that was here for a short period of time but experienced love. You ask this person [holds out right hand] to help this person out [places over left wrist.] Even if you don’t believe in the spiritual level, just your presence next to someone whose son committed suicide is enough support.
Q. Why do you think strangers are willing to trust these temples, and you, with their secrets?
A. [Picks up pieces of scrap wood] When somebody puts this on the temple, they’re not four pieces of scrap wood. They’re four pieces of wood that have been cared about by Heidi or Will or Becky or Maureen or Jody or Tim. The temple crew has handled thousands of these sheets. They’ve had to count it and pack it and carry it and sort it and figure out what the hell I wanted to do with it. There’s a whole lot of layers. They’re putting it on because they know I’ve collected it for a year. They’re putting it on because they know someone’s son committed suicide and that person’s going to come up. So they put these on nicely. That is how the temples got built.
Q. Did you study Thai temples for inspiration?
A. I studied the drop.
Q. Turning to the chapel for the day laborer – did you put it at the market because a statue of Mary couldn’t go in a public park?
A. The chapel didn’t need a good frame. It needed a crappy frame. I wanted a place where the day laborers went. I had a complete vision. I saw the woman getting off the bus, going into the market, getting her groceries and going outside to pray.
Q. Were you surprised that people really did pray in it?
A. Oh yes, totally. And there was another part of the community I wasn’t even aware of. A nicely dressed woman, about our age — not fancy, but you could tell she had good taste — started talking to me. She tells me she’s living in her mobile home now. It’s down the street — a four hundred dollar RV. One of those old junkers. She’d lost everything and the man she was living with took all her money. She was homeless. A vulnerable woman. And she went in it and prayed. Not to Mary but to the Goddess.
Q. Excuse me for not understanding, but how did you get here?
A. Twenty, thirty years ago, I had a studio in San Rafael. I was working on a show, and a friend of mine had an aneurysm and died. It was the first time I had death come anywhere near me. The delicatessen next door , where I got coffee, was run by a couple named Jim and Josie. Jim was from Butchertown in San Francisco and Josie was Italian from North Beach. One night I dreamed that Josie was like — Snow White, a princess. I knew what the dream was about: I’d taken them for granted. So when I went back in the next day we got to talking and I find out that both Jim and Josie have cancer. At that time people didn’t look at people who had cancer. It was like having a big mole on your face. I started going to the hospital with them, seeing Jim dealing with prostate cancer, seeing Josie when she was doing chemo. I became a journalist.
Q. Took notes, photographs?
A. No , but it went into me. I thought, If I’m an artist and my art is real, I should be able to find a cure for cancer. People make rattles with beads in it, shamanistic things, medicine bags – and I thought, god damn, my art’s going to do that! Talk about an ego.
Q. And it didn’t.
A. And it didn’t.
Q. And then?
A. Then the Exploratorium asked me to do a car, and asked me who I wanted to work with. I said people in recovery, or developmentally disabled people. I don’t work with artists. I’d rather work with the beat-up people. Not the people who are running good. If we don’t include them, then what are we doing?
They brought me a group of developmentally challenged people with AIDS. [pauses.] They brought in condoms, they bought buttons, they brought spoons from someone that died, they brought plates to put on the car. When we finished the car, I said, this is what you’re going to ride to heaven in. And they started jumping up and down and going [gets up and illustrates, hitting fisted hands against knees] Oh! Boy! Oh! Boy! We’re going to go to heaven In!This!Car!. That was it. The light went on: we are making physical vehicles for a spiritual journey.
Q. So you are working not only with discarded objects, but discarded people. And although you found your art couldn’t heal physically, you started to explore other forms of healing. I imagine all those people are dead now.
A. Oh yes, they’re all gone.
Q. The art you do by yourself – your collages, your porcelains — are meticulous. But the art cars are somewhat chaotic.
A. When I’m working with the public, it’s not about craftsmanship. When people are going to die in a year they don’t have to become f—-ing good artists. There’s just not enough time.
Q. Is there a tension in this?
A. At the Exploratorium, there I am with this car, it’s a BMW, and this woman has put glue on her hands and reached into things, and she’s got glue and beads all over her but nothing on the car. It’s pretty messy. I walked up and went [stands, demonstrates, sucking breath in]“Don’t you –uuuh -know anything –uuh- about craftsmanship! — I’m just sucking the words back into me. [laughs.]
Her father said it to her, her husband said it to her, and she was waiting for me to say it:You’re stupid. I got a caulking gun and went splat and put a big wad of silicon in her hand. I gave her shards of broken plastic. And clear plastic rods. I said, You are only going to work with pain and tears. This is your pain. [Gesturing with one cupped hand] This is your tears. [Gesturing with other hand] No more colors. No more shapes. Just all this broken clear plastic. And she spent an hour working only with pain and tears. And that was a long time for that person.
Q. What did that part of the car look like?
A. Like a porcupine. Like acupuncture. Or pain. The car ended up in Texas at the art car museum in Houston. I once did a car for a museum in Reno with people from rehab. Two of them are heroin prostitutes. Tough. One is native American and one is Filipino. And one says, “Hey Man, I want to put this on the car. “ It’s a sign saying “Jesus loves you,” and I’m like ‘AAAACK! No!’ You can’t put this on the car! We’re going to make the Kingdom of God! [laughs] Remember, I’m not mellow.
I gave them coins and said, here, cover this section with these. The Filipino girl does scales. The Native American girl does a Native American pattern. Way — back back back back back! — in both of them was that information. They had done everything possible to wipe out who they were, and it was still in them. One was still an islander. One was still a tribal person. Those are the things that led me to the temple. [pause] Are your parents still alive?
Q. Yes, but my father had a stroke.
A. Is he proud of you?
Q. I think so.
A. You think so? Why not you know so?
Q. Well, I think they’re relieved —
A. That you’re not a car thief? There are two ways of looking at it. Which is more beneficial to you? That you think so? Or you know so. He’s going to be gone. You’ve got the choice. Okay?
Q. I already know. [tearing up] He loves me.
A. I’m sorry to embarrass you.
Q. I’m not embarrassed.
A. A filmmaker who was making a movie about me told me that his father had committed suicide. He’d gotten the pictures from the police which had bothered him – the decomposed body hanging from a tree. Then he’d dreamed he was in an elevator. He felt the doors open and his father was there, saying, it’s okay. The filmmaker said to me, I want to believe that this is true, but probably it was just a dream. I told the filmmaker, which do you want? Do you want to believe that your father came back to say goodbye to you and say he’s at peace, or do you want to believe that was just a dream? Your choice.
The same thing’s true in the desert. When the temple burns, these tornadoes, these wind currents go through it and fly out into the crowd, into thousands of people and they’re dancing around. That’s one interpretation. Wind currents. Native Americans believe that those are ancestors coming back to visit you. Both of them are true. Which one do you want? I choose to believe that they’re ancestors.
©2005 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.