The Universe Revolves Around YOU: an interview with Zachary Coffin

May 30, 2012 By Moze


I’ve believed Zachary Coffin was part of a select group of great Burning Man artists ever since I first encountered his Temple of Gravity in 2003. He is one of the artists out there who builds something you can’t help but see. You will visit it throughout your week there and you will use as a landmark. He fills up the space because he works on such a huge scale and he fills it with awe. His works on playa include 2001’s Rockspinner, 2003’s Temple of Gravity, 2005’s Colossus and this year, as you’ll read below, he’s bringing us The Universe Revolves around YOU.

Zach is an artist who works with really big things and by big things I mean twenty thousand pound spinning and hanging boulders, heavy steel structures that allow you to interact with the weight of freight trains, and the pull of the Moon on the Earth to power Tidal Indicators. He’s like a bright spark, excited about what he’s doing yet low key about it even though he’s larger than life in many ways. Talking with him about his art you get the feeling you’re talking to an incarnation of some great God of the mountain who is pulling out stones so large that more than one would pulverize a semi with its weight. And he’s building these structures to handle that weight, then loading the whole thing up and bringing them out to Black Rock City to make those stones seem as light as a row of birds on a wire.

He and I sat down over beers across from the Burning Man HQ last week and Zach told me,

He has a bit of a twinkle in his eye when he tells you his ideas, like he’s in on something so large you’re only going to get a small glimpse of what lives there, but that glimpse is big enough to blow your mind. I’ve met a fair share of artists and Zach’s one of the sincere ones. He smiles a lot and has a good humor about him and he gives off a genuinely kind vibe. Update: There is now a KickStarter campaign for the project. Please donate if you can:

Zach is currently working two projects: the for the Keyhole at Burning Man and for the San Francisco Bay, hopefully in time for a temporary anchorage during America’s Cup.

When he graduated High School, he worked as photojournalist for a while then attended Cooper Union and was awarded an artist in residency at Socrates Sculpture Park. I asked him how he made the change from photojournalism to sculpture and where did all the physics and mechanics come from. Did he learn that all on his own?

His sculptures are indeed gray and they almost appear to be extensions of the playa at times throughout the event. He continued,

That piece was called Allegrow and was installed in New York City. I asked him how he made it out to the West Coast from New York and first became involved with Burning Man.

Zach made a conscious decision soon thereafter to leave San Francisco to do what he calls “pursue serious art” and he learned that the Birmingham Museum of Art had a large sculpture area where they were doing heavy duty Industrial Art. While there he created pieces such as Antelumpen and Rockspinners. He eventually moved to Atlanta, into a large warehouse to accommodate his growing collection of thousands of pounds of tools and cranes. I asked him about his solo show, in 1997 in the Charles Ireland Sculpture Garden at the Birmingham Museum of Art and how he mentions, even going back to his thesis at Cooper Union, his incorporation of “human powered wing flapping” machines.

The Rockspinner?

As if just going out and getting a twenty thousand pound rock wasn’t enough…. I mentioned that I look at some of his stuff and I think, how the hell does this work? Colossus was obviously amazing, with the weight and the physics and the people hanging on it.

he pauses then continues,

What do you mean?

Zach paused and saw something in his mind’s eye and continued,

I asked Mr. Coffin where he got his giant stones.

Was the Temple of Gravity a grant project?

Later in our interview he expanded on his philosophy of raising money for his projects:

I found that line of exploration regarding funding art refreshing. Personally, I think it’s good to hear something that’s both positive and realistic because really, the end result is art is funded and everyone benefits from that.

I told him that personally, I think grabbing onto a huge boulder and having it swing you around in the Keyhole at Burning Man is probably better than spending an afternoon dicking around on Facebook. He replied,

When people see the massive scope of his work and the heavy machinery involved, I wondered if he had any advice for people thinking on that scale and he said,

Burning man is definitely a special place to make art, vast, entirely flat…

Do you have a team of engineers you work with?

At that point Zach said something that is pretty much universally true about our little event.

And what of the Universe Revolves Around YOU?

Zach has mentioned before of the joy he takes when a big guy approaches his art in motion and decides to try to stop it. The art inevitably says, no, you aren’t stopping me that easily.

Laughter and hilarity ensued on my part mostly since I’ve been that guy before meeting one of his projects for the first time. You have to know your physics when interacting with physical things on the playa. If you’re top heavy, don’t even attempt Thunderdome.

Zach had spent much of the day talking with governmental types about his other project, Tidal Time. I’d seen some sketches of it in the Black Rock Arts Foundation room at ArtPadSF, but once I read about what it is he wants to do I was pretty much blown away by the scope and the concept of it. After having talked with him and having a few beers I realized that an idea this immense is pretty much the kind of thing that comes from the mind of a Zachary Coffin.

Inertia and the movement of these massive rocks on the playa is something to behold. Tidal Time is powered by the interaction of the pull of the Moon on the Earth, two planetary masses, and the tides the Moon causes make this particular project work. As the tide comes in, a huge mast moves along and points toward the current. He explained,

(he moves his hand like a buoy bobbing and says ‘ning ‘ning’ ning’)

… and mooring?

There’s no other artist I’ve ever met like Mr. Coffin who can move through a conversation about twenty thousand pound stones cut from a tombstone quarry, to his massive turning things and his “culmination of [his] exploration of the human interface” to a nonchalant reference to his giant project powered by the tides that is “no different from anchoring a large ship”.

These are indeed interesting times to be interacting with the art world that tends to gravitate to Burning Man. Look for the Universe Revolves Around YOU in the Keyhole this year in Black Rock City and hopefully soon you’ll be able to know exactly whether the tides are ebbing or flowing in San Francisco Bay by the position of Tidal Time’s arrow, tall above the water on his giant sculpture in the Bay.

7 Comments on “The Universe Revolves Around YOU: an interview with Zachary Coffin”

  • Julie Kelsey says:
  • May 30, 2012 at 5:56 pm
  • Such an interesting conversation — project sounds stellar. Can’t wait to see this!!
  • Report comment
  • Roissy says:
  • May 31, 2012 at 12:50 am
  • I am glad to see Zachary’s return to the Playa. The Temple of Gravity and Colossus, rate up there as some of my most favorite pieces seen on Playa.
    Tidal Time seems to be a great piece for the masses in the Bay Area who not otherwise see Zachary’s work… Can’t wait to see it…
  • Report comment
  • Sundial says:
  • May 31, 2012 at 1:11 am
  • Wow Zach thanks for sharing your insights. Always loved your work. Can’t wait for this year.
  • Report comment
  • epiphany starlight says:
  • June 3, 2012 at 2:11 pm
  • …but we want you to get the opportunity to hurt yourself… haha
    Thanks Zachary for massive works of art executed with such adroit finesse. You’re on my must see list.
  • Report comment
  • Lee Hill says:
  • June 6, 2012 at 9:15 pm
  • Hillahead says very interesting. LOVE reading the entire article. Of course I am 1 who did not score tickets this year. Your project sound so remarkable and intesting, would have love to seen it. Keep your wonderful mind creating these over the top ideas.
  • Report comment
  • Ian Hopper says:
  • June 7, 2012 at 1:26 pm
  • Wow.. Zach does it again! I’ve been a fan of Zach’s work ever since The Temple of Gravity… I’m excited to see Tidal Time come to life in my own backyard!
  • Report comment



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store