Übie and the Man

When the Mexican-wrestling match between the lawn gnome and the pink flamingo was over, a man wearing nothing but tight, black Lycra pants climbed onto the stage. At well under 6 feet, photographer Kevin Rolly wasn’t imposing, but he didn’t seem to know it. Still, with his scruffy beard and tufts of chest hair, he managed to look masculine despite his decidedly un-macho ensemble. He held something behind his back.

“You know why you’re all here?” Rolly said, addressing the small crowd in fringed dresses and sharp suits that has gathered for a speakeasy-themed fund-raiser in the Brewery Arts complex. “For this: the Überman. We are going to build a man bigger than The Man.”

Rolly revealed what he was holding and thrust it above his head, looking like a cross between a kid show-and-telling and a victorious warrior, though the 3-foot-high stick figure he held was hardly impressive. It was a little alienlike, with three legs instead of two, and clenched a metal pinwheel in its upstretched fist — a dweeby, kid-brother alien. It was supposed to represent the sculpture that would dwarf Burning Man’s namesake icon later in the year, but on this June night the model looked more like an erector-set prototype than an engineering triumph.

“They’ll never be able to build it,” someone whispered.

Three months, $5,000, a design by the man with the record for the World’s Biggest Blender, and a thousand work hours later, Rolly and a dozen others are indeed at Burning Man in Nevada, raising their five-piece, 60-foot-tall Überman into the air with ropes and an A-frame brace. The red-steel sculpture with its redder neon façade stands tall and triumphant, surrounded by flat, cracked desert.

Then the wind gusts and the structure wobbles, its pinwheel catching the air like a sail. It seems Überman might stabilize; but then it falls in that silent, slow-motion, movie-tragedy way — like the giant in the fairy tales, face-first and erect. Some of the onlookers cry.

Rolly, in cutoff pants, a cowboy hat and a cheek swollen to twice its normal size by an abscessed tooth, doesn’t wait long to hit the Scotch — or address the crowd. He climbs atop a burned-out VW van, its insides full of smoldering coals from last night’s barbecue, and gives a rousing speech about redemption and resurrection, a cross between Henry V and Animal House.

“We will rebuild,” he says, now ­echoing MacArthur, and the motley crew of friends cheer.

Three days on, with the unexpected help of Burning Man organizers and their giant crane, Rolly and company are lighting the re-erected statue’s neon accessories to a jazzy, poppy version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme. But this isn’t exactly the Überman many imagined: Though Übie is taller than The Man, he isn’t bigger than The Man and its base.

Also, Übie is stuck several streets back from Burning Man’s main drag, challenging The Man as effectively as a rogue in the bleachers threatening a boxer in the ring. He has short arms, an impish smile made from The Man’s neon rib, and a noticeable lack of neon down below, which gives him either the impression he’s floating or that he’s wearing no pants. Instead of the pinwheel, he’s holding an equally nerdy, blinking “Time for Pie” sign.

But that’s okay with Rolly. He loves his resurrected messiah. On the night of the burn, the big night on Burning Man’s campus when everyone gathers to watch the fireworks and dust devils and the wooden Man falling in a swirl of flames, what excites Rolly is the “Last Man Standing” party held beneath Übie’s new flame-throwing penis.

Friends sing karaoke — “Faith” and “Rock You Like a Hurricane” and “Hotel California” — while their faces are projected onto Übie’s head. Rolly and his friends are pleased as can be, as is the Burning Man organization. They’ve even mentioned it in the event’s daily newspaper as one of their favorite art pieces, and in a list of what’s In and Out (Out: Burning Man. In: Überman.).

If others were less impressed, asking “That’s it?,” Rolly doesn’t seem to care. “It was a big, dumb idea,” he says, beaming. “But it was our big, dumb idea.”

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