At Home in the Big Empty

Burning Man and the Playa Sublime


  • Graham St John Université de Fribourg



sublimity, desert, playa, space, art, fire, dust, Burning Man


Burning Man is an artistic community event that has been dis/assembled in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert every summer since 1990. The location of this event in this desert has had a shaping impact on Burning Man as a gathering, a city, an organization, and a transnational cultural movement. A unique facet of what is known as Black Rock City is not simply that it is dis/assembled in a desert region, but that it recurs on a playa, the ne plus ultra of deserts. The Black Rock playa has obtained a special significance for participants (i.e. burners), for whom this liminal space is recognized, paradoxically, as ‘home’. This uniquely sublime no-place contextualizes a familial encounter experience shaping on-playa identity over three decades of event-going. Informed by Emily Brady’s study of paradox in natural sublimity, the writings of poet-geographer of the ‘Big Empty’ William L. Fox, and the author’s experience of Black Rock City in seven cycles from 2003, three qualities of playaspace (otherworldly, ephemeral, limitless) are addressed, each implicated in its unique potential for a transformational community that has fashioned a homeland on the frontiers of the sublime.

Author Biography

Graham St John, Université de Fribourg

Graham St John, Université de Fribourg, Science des Religions, Fribourg, Switzerland.


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How to Cite

St John, G. (2020). At Home in the Big Empty: Burning Man and the Playa Sublime. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 13(3), 286–313.