Interactive Art

David Best Creates a Temple Made of Memories Outside San Francisco

Most works of art convey a specific message from the artist. But at David Best’s new temple in Sonoma County, visitors help build the piece out of their own memories of love and loss.

Debra A. Klein

What do we have, in the end, when a love has gone? When a person has left for good? All that was everything between two people—a romance, a friendship, or simply day-to-day life—disappears. Only our memories never leave. But what if we want them to?

These are the thoughts that might flood visitors to David Best’s Temple of Remembrance in a meadow on the grounds of Paradise Ridge Winery. Like a vaguely Asian-themed birdcage, the deceptively ingenious rusted lattice memorial to love and loss is part shrine, part interactive do-it-yourself art project, as light visually as it is heavy emotionally.

It’s a place to remember the people you’re carrying in your mind or your heart. You can scrawl something on a flat pebble and bury it in a bird-bath bowl, or send a message to them on a piece of cloth set aflutter in the wine country wind. And, in doing so, you release your own feelings, too.

Best and his crew helped put the “burning” in the Burning Man festival fourteen years ago when they built the massive Temple of the Mind memorial in Nevada’s desert, and then dedicated it to a friend who’d died before the event began. Droves of attendees streamed inside to vent their emotions over the course of several days. The structure ignited their passions, and then the creators ignited it.

The temple idea caught fire, and while that ephemeral tradition continues as an end-of-the-festival ritual each year, the new Temple of Remembrance, on a hillside in Sonoma County, is Best’s first constructed in steel and is permanent. It sits somewhere between Truth and Love (that’s not a metaphor, those are the names of two other large Burning Man sculptures relocated to the same grassy, oak-fringed field) in a place where—despite expansive tree and vineyard vistas—visitors will find themselves looking within.

While Best’s flammable work is fleeting, the changes people experienced inside seem to stick. Best recalls a grieving father confiding that a visit let him unlock the emotional door trapping his family in grief. “Our son is free now,’” Best remembers he said. It’s a reminder that the flip side of anger is love, isn’t that why we feel both so intensely?

Although Best doesn’t consider himself particularly spiritual, he has a sixth sense about what people need to heal emotionally, be it from a trauma or a lost love, or both.

“You have to provide a place where someone can feel private, yet safe. They can be there or run away, they are not locked in,” he says. Immediately after, as if to prove his non-guru bona fides, he mentions he’s putting the finishing touches on a hot rod to race at Bonneville.

He’s on to something—every town has a plaque to commemorate an event or lost soldier, but most are forgotten in a leftover corner of a park or in a traffic median wedge. What makes some memorials work and others fail?

The answer may be in allowing viewers to participate. “It’s important in public settings to touch something, that’s how we know the world,” environmental psychologist Nicholas Watkins says. It’s like when a baby explores by putting things in her mouth.

Best provides plenty of hands-on elements. Strips dangling from the temple’s mouth make walking into the space feel like entering a car wash, and, without realizing it, visitors are, on some level, cleansed. Shadows shower down from cut-outs in the temple’s layered bell-shaped chedi roof, creating an I Dream of Jeannie-patterned illusion on the ground: an intricate bottle interior rendered in rusted steel. Instead of pink cushions, there are chilly stark benches; instead of shiny décor, the light reflects from old glossy photos posted on the wall by relatives or friends. Poems and pebbles whisper personal messages—“I love you” and “I miss you”—and empty heart outlines drawn on fabric rise and fall, flicked inside out by the breeze.

Best said he thought of Ireland and the Celtic tradition of tying a “clootie”, or cloth, to a tree near a holy well when he decided to leave fabric for people to write on. But they reminded me of a different island, on the other side of the world, instead. Some tree branches of Kusu Island in Singapore look like they are littered with dozens of errant and flattened trash bags that had blown across the Singapore Strait. But on my visit there, I soon learned they were props in an elaborate ritual: those who’d left them would return to retrieve them the next year.

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Watkins, who studied how Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial helped vets still grappling with PTSD, says the act of approach and retreat is also part of healing, achieved through a constellation of behaviors that, ultimately, allow our brains to “reset.” He says the way we do this is similar to a bird of prey assessing its quarry, swooping in. “We revisit a trauma over and over,” Watkins says. Like when someone leaves us too soon, and we don’t know why, we ruminate to reconcile the loss in our heads.

I thought about fellow volunteers I’d met in Thailand. I’d arrived months after the Asian tsunami to find the decimated beach resort, Khao Lak still raw visually. Solo flip flops, empty household cleaner bottles, and shattered TVs defined the high tide line; ravaged half-buildings, like macabre doll houses, gaped onto flattened fields. After a couple of months, I was ready to leave. Yet members of the original group, those who’d worked through the grimmest days, were so bound to that initial location and experience—and to each other—that they still return every year. I now realize the entire area is their memorial, each village, built from ruins, a place they need to see again and again.

From his experiences at Burning Man, Best was prepared for a lot of anger in his temple, and warned his patrons, the family of sculptor and engineer, Al Voigt, to brace for permanent profanity. Yet what’s scattered inside—champagne flutes, a garter, candy boxes crushed between the intricately cut steel layers—all hint at happy times. The messages that are scrawled in pen on benches are decidedly rated G.

Why light candles and leave mementos out in the open to be weathered and ruined? Given all the avenues technology offers to make our most private thoughts public, why do people even bother disclosing their feelings at brick and mortar—or rusted steel—monuments that are relatively low-tech? Watkins theorizes that permanent materials subconsciously reflect a commitment to remember something over a longer period of time, maybe even generations. “In this sense the structure ‘remembers for us,’” he says. Or maybe, since life is [supposed to be] lived in three dimensions, creating something that’s made of more than just words is somehow more fitting.

As for the objects, they’re symbolic: a tit-for-tat exchange with the universe, part of a reciprocity in which you offer something of yourself and—on some level—expect something in return. Like when visitors stand at the edge of the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, and spontaneously fling coveted hotel souvenir leis into the oil-streaked wavelets (perhaps secretly bargaining for sunny vacation days).

Although Best’s temple is as porous as a whiffle ball, each time I stepped in, I seemed to enter an aural trance. I literally didn’t hear cars passing on the highway, normally a constant hum anywhere in the area. “Silence has a sound,” Watkins had explained. Now I heard what he meant.

I read more of the messages. There were so many streamers, it would be impossible to take them all in, but it seemed important to try, to complete this exchange. These people had offered up their thoughts to be read and absorbed. I flattened out some of the strips.

“Every one of us sends love.” “I hope you found peace.” “You are on my mind every day.”

It was clear people saw the memorial as a portal to the next life, a way to reach their lost loved ones on the wind.

Then, although I demur at group participation, avoid audience sing-a-longs or forced clapping on cue, I was inexplicably moved to join in. I grabbed a felt tipped marker, sat back down to add my voice to this chorus of silent tributes, and wrote two things: one, an appreciation; the other, a regret. I put both pebbles into the same bowl, and, despite the name of the memorial, immediately forgot what I’d written, which I think is, after all, the idea. I expressed and shared my love and my loss, and then I left those feelings at the temple and walked away.