August 29, 2020
Ever since WPA’s Thom and Beth started trekking to Burning Man each August, they dreamed of one day building a large-scale art project there. Amazingly, the dream came true when the Hermitage Museum brought a slice of Black Rock City to Norfolk with their Art of Burning Man show, and subsequently coalesced a team of artists, makers, designers, and organizers — all based in the 757 — who would go on to do just that.
“Happy Birthday! (Mega Cake)” was born out of the idea to make an art piece that would be an instantly recognizable form at a massive scale and visible from long distances to draw a maximum number of visitors who, once there, would discover that they could enter, climb, explore, and interact with the piece, potentially leading to transformative experiences. The concept of a multi-tiered birthday cake worked perfectly to satisfy the vision: its form is recognizable from any vantage point, its stacked shape naturally allowed for exterior decks in the round for visitors to access, it offered many surfaces for decoration, and it created an opportunity for the incorporation of fire art (birthday cakes have candles, of course!). With 80,000 attendees, the piece would also serve a civic role as a place to celebrate each other’s birthdays, or those of loved ones not present.
The Mega Cake was constructed with untreated southern pine lumber, ¾” plywood, non-toxic tempera paint, and LED lighting. Decorative and interactive features included custom fused glass art pieces by team member Jen Detlefsen, dichroic film and plexiglass art pieces by team member Tabatha Anger, custom CNC-cut plywood & LED pendant lights, a spiral slide, and a 12-sided “Gifting Calendar” with a shelf for every birthday during the year for visitors to leave and receive presents. A spiral stair connected each of the Cake’s four tiers to the ground, and a cone-shaped chamber in the center of the piece was used for performances and weddings. Six propane-fueled “poofer” candles sat atop the piece, with electronic controls to activate flame bursts. Power was provided by gasoline-fueled generators.
The project had life in three different iterations in three locations. The top two tiers were assembled at the Love Burn regional burn event in Miami, Florida, in January 2019. The bottom two tiers were assembled at the Hermitage Museum and Gardens in July 2019 for a food-themed event during its Conversations: Contemporary Asian Art exhibition. The final version was the full four tiers at Burning Man where it was open to the public for three days before being consumed in flames during a large pyrotechnics show by team members Jennifer Richter and Ryan Seeley and their pyro crew. It was estimated that up to 20,000 people witnessed the finale.
Special thanks to the Mega Cake Crew, the Hermitage Museum and Gardens, 757 Makerspace, Lynch Mykins, and the hundreds of volunteers, donors, and supporters for their contributions in making it happen. Photos by Yuzhu Zheng.