We talked with Michael Verdon, the artist behind the burning temples of Catharsis, and about what inspired him to create transformative art.
How did you first become involved in Catharsis?
Robert “Roman” Haferd began paperwork to have a Burning Man-style event on the National Mall. He asked me if I would be interested to create burning art for the event. I was honored to have been asked to participate in this vigil and create work that would help unify the event and break unprecedented barriers.
My passion is transformative art work focused on bringing community together. This has led me to design and lead 11 large-scale site-specific temple projects. These sacred structures are built to be burned with the intention of facilitating a space for communal and individual healing. People are invited to participate by sharing their stories and leaving mementos inside the structure. Our collective memory is woven together and then released in the structure’s transformation. We rise from those ashes.
What does this event mean to you?
When Roman asked me to sign on, it was important to me that the vigil have a focus on bringing people together to facilitate curative processes through direct action and experience. Healing and health are swept aside far too often in our society.
Catharsis on the Mall is both a reflection and a celebration. It offers a safe space to learn, listen, dance, create, and so much more. We hope to grow every year and bring in new groups and people who want to share this space with us.
The event creates a space where all are welcome to gather and maintain a safe space for each other. This type of space is needed… and to do it on our National Mall – this is powerful. I would like to see this vigil expand into a National Day of Healing.
Last year your art installation was a wooden temple, and when burned revealed a steel prison cell on the inside that eventually collapsed in flames. What was the inspiration behind this?
The art theme last year was dedicated to victims of the drug war. The structure was modeled after a prison cell that many citizens experience daily due to unjust policies and practices of our system. The interior of the sacred object was small and confined – unlike any temple I had designed, but with the intention of sharing that terrible experience.
The drug war is corrupt. It destroys communities and erases people’s ability to change the system waging this war. It is a grave injustice to the people and the society. It targets groups of citizens disproportionately. It hurts us all. We fill our prisons with people who are leased to private companies to make profit from the inmates labor. The convict-lease system is a new form of state-sponsored slavery. It robs citizens of their life and freedom. Prohibition has never worked. Burning the prison cell represented a call to end to these failed policies that slowly shred our families and communities.
How many times did you practice to get it to collapse perfectly? That was impressive.
Thank you. That means a lot. The burn is as important as the build. We spend countless hours making sure the burn ceremony is inspirational. This was the only one-of-its-kind, as I like to keep being inventive; so, the only practice were the ceremonies I’ve led already.
I think of myself as a detailed planner – meticulously reviewing plans and ideas. I have led about 11 of these structures and feel I have become intune in some ways of how the fire will act and behave. Fire is its own master, but I have techniques of bending it my way and working with it.
What are some other installations you’ve done?
I create a lot of transformative work. I have led 11 Temples at events on the east coast in 5 years. Even non-temple work is often destroyed as part of its experience. Some work is made for private collections. I prefer making site-specific installation with each work unique and innovative.
8030: A Memorial to Veterans was an installation about terribly high rates of veteran suicide. Participants learned through action, interaction, and conversation. In the end, that project was demolished using tools associated with tearing down houses as an act of structural transformation.
What’s this year’s temple like?
This year’s theme is about healing from trauma. There isn’t a single source of trauma or symbol because it is so personal and variant. There are two key elements to healing trauma: coping and catharsis. It is infinitely easier to write about than to perform.
Coping is how we handle a situation. We relive trauma over and over, until we have the tools to fully process the experience. Catharsis is how we let go of that experience and put it behind us. After time has passed and understanding is gained, we are reborn.
The temple is phoenix-themed and full of fiery motion soaring above our heads. This regenerating creature is a symbol across multiple cultures. The structure’s interior is large enough to accommodate many visitors at a time including seating for 16.
The altar, a special place to leave mementos in the center of the temple, represents coping and catharsis with its two towering blades. The two blades become one and direct our thoughts and prayers to the heavens. A labyrinth is at the entrance of the temple for all who seek to find their own journey. This temple will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Seating for 16 before it’s set aflame, right?
We have seating outside for thousands when it is set aflame.