The festival of creative expression known as Burning Man has become a fixture of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, but when it first moved from the Bay Area in 1996, the Burning Man concept was foreign to the Silver State. Las Vegas native Anthony Bondi, however, knew its presence demanded reaction.
“Burning Man is in our backyard,” the 59-year-old multidisciplinary artist says. “How could we not respond to it?”
“Responding” is a mild description for what Bondi did: He became the Las Vegas ambassador to the festival, rallying like-minded individuals and spearheading the creation of increasingly complex and creative art installations to make the annual trek to the windy playa.
“During the ’90s, I did Vegas shows and Burning Man projects at the same time,” Bondi says. “It finally hit me: Either way, shows or projects cost me money and no one bought anything. A Vegas show might be seen by 100 people, while a Burning Man project would be seen by tens of thousands. Burning Man won.”
Bondi’s creations for Burning Man were inventive and always improving on previous models. His 2006 “Tactile Tunnels” installation—a follow-up on earlier projects such as “Human Car Wash” and “Tactile Corridor”—was a series of steel-framed “portals” totaling 40 feet, through which people would pass like automobiles in a car wash, bumping up against padded sleeves or trekking through hanging metal beads. “The Jigglator,” from 2009, was an elaborate work of “soft architecture” co-designed by local artist Chad Brown, something like a playground carousel gone mad, which ended up nearly falling apart by the end of that year’s Burning Man due to “rough” play.
After creating new installations such as these almost every year between 1996 and 2009, Bondi could no longer afford to keep up their production. The cement backyard surrounding the pool at Bondi’s Huntridge-area house became an unofficial museum for these masses of plastic, metal and reclaimed materials. However, in the last few years, he has been recycling Burning Man pieces and reconfiguring them into photographic environments, which provide the setting for what Bondi refers to as “three-dimensional collages.”
Photographs of those dense, layered environments will be on display at RTZVegas from September 5-28 in Suspicious Evidence, a joint show with fellow native Ginger Bruner. Bondi’s images—shot at his home with models immersed in his fabricated sets—have a fantastic, dreamlike quality. The images of women in pools draped in soaking fabrics, surrounded by vines, pastel-colored bubbles and plastic reptiles seem to be computer-generated visions, but these photos are entirely real.
Bondi feels there’s a continuity of theme between his older collage work and these newer photographic pieces, noting the “only difference is technique.” Viewers can compare for themselves when his second show this fall, Neon Metropolis, opens at Sin City Gallery on October 31. This solo exhibit of original collage pieces will allow newcomers to get an up-close look at his surreal ruminations on life in Sin City—hand-cut and seamlessly pasted together—representing hundreds of hours spent meticulously sourcing, reproducing and assembling what might be done today with a few Google searches and a half-hour in Photoshop.
To Bondi, his connection to his hometown and his preference for assembling seemingly random elements into a cohesive work are entirely related. “Collage is the distinctive element of this city,” he says, pointing to the Strip as a microcosm of metropolis built from the collecting of things that shouldn’t fit together, yet somehow do.
For now, the artist is happy to reintroduce his work to an art scene that has grown beyond anything he could have imagined back when he was helping to produce art events in UNLV-area coffee houses several decades ago. Although he has no immediate plans to create art destined for Black Rock City, Bondi says that with Burning Man influencing everything from First Friday to the Electric Daisy Carnival, he doesn’t need to.
“The culture that used to be far away,” he says, “is getting a whole lot closer.”