Dare to push the button
We ♥ Hou for its alien art: Delve deep into the Big Bubble coverup and themystery of the Buffies
Houston holds a world of art, enough for a lifetime of appreciation. Much of that art is accessible to us all. Public art is so easy to view as we wander through our days, we may never even notice it’s there.
From Henry Moore’s Large Spindle Piece along Allen Parkway to Matisse’s Backs in the MFAH’s Cullen Sculpture Garden to the brand new Tolerance sculptures near Rosemont Bridge to the beloved Beer Can House, art litters the city, enriching our lives and love for Houston.
My favorite work is The Big Bubble because it is bizarre, unexpected, and strangely beautiful, so very Houston. I also love this piece because I can play the “Yes, but is it really art?” game, not because it lacks merit, but because I have a sneaking suspicion it’s not human made at all.
Located near the Wortham Center, on the second pillar on Preston Street over Buffalo Bayou lies the first part of this piece, a small, mysterious red button. With no adjacent sign there to explain what it does, the button leaves curious pedestrians wrestling with temptation. To push or not to push? So, go ahead and press the button. Then look down below, as a few seconds later a giant air bubble gushes to the surface of Buffalo Bayou.
Supposedly, The Big Bubble was created by Houston artist Dean Ruck and consists of a compressor on the banks that feeds air into a piping system on the bottom of the Bayou. A few moments after the button is pressed, the air is released into the water and a bubble rises to the surfaces with a satisfying burp.
In the Channel 8 2006 program Art Is All Around Us, a special on Downtown Houston’s public art, Ruck explained the idea comes “from that idea from the master plan to increase the aeration in the Bayou, but also — I’ve always had this fascination with water flow and activation and kinetic sculptures ... I wanted to — to put something in the Bayou to point out the importance and the vitality of the Bayou itself.”
So that’s his story, and if true then The Big Bubble is certainly a fitting addition to Houston’s eclectic public art collection. A playful piece, it causes viewers to interact with the Bayou through technology, while perhaps making us think about all the ways we daily sculpt Houston’s natural world.
But really, isn’t this explanation a little too convenient?
Isn’t it far more likely that we have our own surviving line of plesiosaurs down in the Bayou? Over millions of years, isn’t it probable they evolved as short, wise creatures who have watched the growth of Houston from yellow-fever plagued swamp town to the archetype of a sprawling metropolis that it is today?
And isn’t it likely these Buffalo Bayou Monsters, a.k.a Buffies, have acquired the ability to converse in both English and Spanish over the centuries and then befriended and helped to guide Houston’s founding mothers and fathers, from giving real estate tips to the Allen brothers to advising Ima Hogg on early American decorative arts?
Of course, city leaders might want us to believe the bubble and its button are art. But might that whole “art” story be just that, a cover story? Perhaps that red button is in actuality the underwater call for whenever the mayor or city council needs the help of the Buffalo Bayou Monsters’ noted budget-balancing or crime-fighting skills. Once called, might it give a responding big air burp to announce it's on its way to save the day?
The Big Bubble, art or underwater bayou signal for a super problem-solving plesiosaur? I love Houston because in this town, we can never be certain.