Viewing art doesn’t usually require signing a safety waiver before the seeing, but then most sculptures don’t thrillingly bridge the divide between art and spectator like the latest incarnation of Mike and Doug Starn’s Big Bambú project, This Thing Called Life, now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
For five summers in a row, the MFAH has presented a large-scale immersive installation inside the Caroline Wiess Law Building, an offering that has quickly become the coolest annual art tradition for many Houstonians. But this year’s piece from acclaimed contemporary artists, Mike and Doug Starn, might be the most ambitious yet, as the twin brothers seem to have grown a vast bamboo forest for us to explore.
And yes, the Museum is requiring visitors to read the guidelines for experiencing the installation and sign a waiver before making that journey into This Thing Called Life.
A bamboo tsunami
Life rises from the floor of Cullinan Hall, like a bamboo tsunami 30 feet into the air, creating a bridge onto the second floor the balcony of the Upper Brown Pavilion. Explorers may enter the piece from the second floor, traversing the bridge and then walk through the tree tops, following the bamboo road as it gently spirals down to the floor. Those who have any fear of heights, balance or some mobility issues, can still experience the enormity and beauty of the piece by roaming through it from the ground.
Throughout their artistic career, which began in childhood working on each other’s paintings, the Starns have focused on themes of interconnectedness, especially in nature and in human relationships. The Big Bambú series began a decade ago as a sculptural exploration of some of those ideas, which led to ever evolving manifestations of the work for institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rome, and the Naoshima Museum, Japan.
“The original idea for Big Bambú had nothing to do with bamboo. It was about these interconnected elements that create the structure of life,” explained Mike Starn at a recent “Conversations with the Director” program with the Starns and MFAH director Gary Tinterow.
“The Bambú series was born from our own personal philosophy of how things grow, whether we’re talking about a culture, person or family. It’s through random occurrences, trajectories from history, politics or fears and hopes,” continued Doug Starn. “All these things interconnect and we all live with that and travel forward in life through all these interactions.”
No two installations are the same and each is created by the Starns and a team of artist/rock climbers specifically for the space it inhabits. According to the MFAH, Big Bambú installations have been experienced by more than two million visitors in the last 10 years.
This Houston installation consists of approximately 3000 lashed-together poles of bamboo selected from a farm in Georgia. For all the Big Bambú installations, the brothers work with specially trained rock climbers who do much of the construction. Fifteen artists/climbers, including four local climbers, have worked on building and ensuring the safety of This Thing Called Life since April 30.
Traveling forward through this Life, calls for rubber-soled shoes, no bare feet, heels, or flip-flops, and being able to walking without assistance. You also need to travel sober, and mindful of swinging cameras and phones for all the selfies we’ll no doubt be taking. However, carrying a sense of wonder while walking is certainly allowed and encouraged.
Warnings aside, one of the most remarkable, and seemingly intentional, aspects of Big Bambú is how wild and precarious the installation looks, yet how stable and safe it feels while on the journey from air to ground. Big Bambú gives us a new perspective on both the forest and the trees. And for a few minutes, as we glimpse other sojourners walking the pathway ahead and behind us, we might even feel a slight vibration from those invisible ties — made visible through art — that bind our lives together.
The ticketed exhibition Mike + Doug Starn: Big Bambú This Thing Called Life remains on view (and ready to climb) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through September 3, 2018.