A chance to see Burning Man-style art in Denver


Artists Ryan Elmendorf and Nick Geurts will bring a bit of Burning Man to Denver this weekend, installing their large-scale, interactive sculpture “Awakening” in the RiNo neighborhood for a one-night-only event on Saturday.

Viewers can enter the sculpture “Awakening” through a door in the ear of its head. Photo by Valerie Santerli, provided by the artists

The evening offers a chance to see a landmark artwork making its local debut, but it is also a party with some of the special attractions that make the Burning Man festival, staged annually in the Nevada desert, such a wild affair: DJs, performance artists, fire spinners, aerialists, adult beverages and more than 20 vendors selling various wares.

It will also serve an artful cause. The $20 admission raises funds that the artists will use later this month to take the piece back to the festival, where they are the de facto ambassadors for Colorado among an international group of over-the-top makers.

“I think that what a lot of people overlook about Burning Man — it’s talked about as this huge party — is that it is actually a great opportunity for artists,” said Valerie Santerli, who is part of a crew of Denverites who have been supporting Elmendorf and Geurts over the years.

The fest is also a showplace where artists who work “big” get to show off their skills to potential customers. “A lot of different cities across the country end up buying projects like this for their towns,” said Santerli, who is also the owner of Rule Gallery in Denver’s Santa Fe arts district.

That aspect of Burning Man has actually led to professional careers for these artists and helped build a national client base for their business, called Elmendorf Geurts, one of the largest fabricators of public art pieces in the state.

The company has produced some of the most recognizable works in the region, collaborating with artists such as Mike Lustig on the giant mirror ball that hangs over the crowd at Mission Ballroom; with David Zimmer on the LED panels on the downtown piece titled “Echo;” and with the late Colorado contemporary art legend Clark Richert on the light-up sphere called “Quadrivium” installed in the Uptown neighborhood.

A photo from this week’s installation of “Awakening” at the ReelWorks event center in Denver. Photo by Daniel Tseng, special to The Denver Post.

They are also the creative team behind the popular “Skysong,” the large musical instrument at the Levitt Pavilion that users activate by pressing on a panel of stainless steel buttons.

“Awakening,” which premiered in 2016, is one of Elmendorf and Geurts’ more complicated creations. It consists of three related, steel-frame pieces, resembling two hands and a human head that stand about 16 feet tall.

The hands rise out of the ground and have flexible fingers with highly-polished stainless steel balls representing the finger joints.

The head is the interactive part. Viewers can enter it using one of the ears as a door. Inside, they encounter a camera obscura, a piece of optical equipment going back to the days of Leonardo da Vinci.

The camera captures the image in front of it and projects it on the rear wall of the structure. In essence, the sculpture’s eyes work in a similar way to actual human eyes, displaying “an expansive, 180-degree field of inverted vision,” as Elmendorf puts it.

The artist explained that “Awakenings” is meant as a tribute to the human body and how it makes us different than other living creatures.

“The most advanced pieces of equipment humans have are our hands and our eyes, our ability to manipulate things and our ability to perceive,” he said. “So this is kind of an homage to that, to those mechanisms.”

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