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The Burning Man art you have to see this year: The Head Maze

Explore a 40 foot tall head with 18 unique rooms focusing on mental health

  • Ryan Baesemann
  • 15 August 2019

This is the final piece of a three-part feature series, detailing the ethos and effort behind a few theme-driven art installations appearing at Burning Man 2019. Check out The Folly and I.L.Y.

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Burning Man isn’t just fun and games, and anyone who suggests otherwise is either full of bologna or selling something. It's an extreme place on all counts, pairing the blissful with the bastardized, and all too often the hardships are discounted for the sake of playful myth.

Taking a moment or three for the introspective is a staple of the Burning Man experience. The playa holds a special capacity for reality, and like most powerful medicine, it doesn’t necessarily taste like peaches and cream. It’s a healthy process (most of the time), but rarely without an adequate amount of strife.

The Head Maze

"This project is absolutely absurd,” says Matt Schultz, the project lead and visionary bringing The Head Maze to Burning Man 2019. “We’ve built some ludicrous stuff in the past, but I’ve never embarked on building something quite this ridiculous. It has the scale of Embrace, but we’re building a miniature fucking Meow Wolf inside as well.”

Schultz is arguably the most accomplished builder of the past decade at Burning Man. Whereas Keane’s Folly and Mountain’s I.L.Y. are the first projects they’ve led from end-to-end, Schultz has been through the ringer as a project lead on playa. He’s the visionary behind Embrace, The Space Whale, The Pier and The Pirate Ship, along with a handful of Temple builds. The Head Maze is Schutz’s latest endeavor, and while both the scale and detail makes the project his most monumental to date, the onus of offering resides within the message.

“I’ve been gestating on this idea for about three years now,” Schultz explains. “After finishing The Space Whale in 2016, I’d blown through this 10 year repository of Burning Man ideas, and one of the things I was struggling with was psyche, our minds. I’ve always struggled with mental illness, quite aggressively. I feel like a lot of artists do, but I also wore it as a badge. Over the years of playing with psychedelics and learning how to meditate, I found that I kept returning to this space of discovering this magical beautiful creature inside of me that if I could just release out to the world, everything would be better. But as I became closer to that, I felt myself becoming different and estranged from everyone I cared about. So this desire to chase enlightenment or brilliance through madness meant the world became a bit more alien to me."

This experience is encapsulated within The Head Maze, as a representation for the various mind-states and forms of lunacy experienced by Shultz, but also by the various artists he's brought in to detail the interior decor. It will stand over 40 feet tall with 18 unique rooms, with each room being created by a different artist, representing their various mental states and sentiments. The structure is in the form of a massive head, with hands ripping open the sides of the skull at the temple. Participants are able to enter the head and explore the installations with variable offerings.

Mental health has become a prominent talking point across the music and production industries over the past few years, whether addressing social media or rigorous touring schedules. Shultz’s intention is to foster a greater sense of empathy toward mental illness, and that The Head Maze can be a physical manifestation of our collective turmoil in a way that increases awareness and consideration for all the ways of being.

“As I reflected on my own process grappling with mental illness, I realized that a lot of us feel the same way. I wanted to make an art piece about this mental schism with who we want to be, how the world wants to be, how we relate to one another. That was the birth of The Head Maze, this concept that many of us in society have a common delusion, mental illness or just struggle with the nature of the world," Schultz said.

One side of the lifelike Head Maze face will show the man ripping the side of his head off to reveal a crystal pattern underneath. "It needed to be big and boisterous for people who struggle with their mind or with depression," clarifies Schultz, " it doesn’t feel like they’re one of these human monkeys, and that we all feel this way sometimes.”

Mental health is not a pleasant topic, and Schultz plans to circumvent this aversion with The Head Maze, utilizing the form to address the discussion. The Head Maze isn’t meant to be palatable; in fact, Shultz is going for the opposite. “Burning Man is a cool spot to experiment and there are a lot of amazing structures out there. But I really miss the weird, kinda out there, gross, a little disturbing I want people to feel a lot of different things when they move through The Head Maze. If done right, there’s going to be rooms where you walk in the door and immediately turn around and walk out, thinking ‘I don’t know if I want to go in there right now, like, that was not what I wanted to find.’”

Creating The Head Maze has been a humbling experience, and intentionally so for Shultz. “I feel like a lot of my work has been my ego screaming out for validation, and I don’t know if there’s a need to build at this scale anymore. There’s still a love and passion for it, but my intention is shifting from ‘Hey, look at me and what I can do!’ to more of saying ‘Hey, look at this thing that we all feel. Look at this struggle, and let’s share in it and talk about it and maybe not be so abusive to each other.’ Personally, in reflecting on this piece and this journey, I’m considering how I can be kinder and how can our crew have a softer experience. How can we as a build crew be more inclusive, share a path forward, and encourage other artist voices. And how can we remain healthy while creating this giant testament to madness.”

The entire piece has been fabricated at the Generator in Reno, a creative workshop that has been a leading platform for large-scale art at Black Rock City. While The Head Maze is far too vast to have been assembled in its entirety before leaving for the playa, Schultz’s team, known as The Pier Group, has been working around the clock for months to polish off their latest offering.

In considering the process of designing and constructing The Head Maze, Shultz felt a discernible rush of focus. “I love Burning Man and the environment that we’ve built there together, because there’s a lot of space for failure and loving stuff just because it exists. I don’t expect this head to be perfect, or even good, but I really hope that there’s someone, just one kid who needs a big hug and a sense that the world’s ok - to look at this big giant head ripping the side of his face off from across the playa, and know that they’re not alone in this feeling”

The Head Maze is looking for volunteer guardians to help facilitate the space during Burn Week. The sign up form is available here.

Ryan Baesemann is an Editorial Contributor to Mixmag. Follow him on Twitter.

Photos via The Head Maze

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