I first saw Big Bambú on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum in 2010. Looking up at the densely built jungle gym of 5,000 bamboo poles (which was actually titled "You Can't, You Don't, and You Won't Stop") I found myself wondering: How did the Starn brothers convince the most important museum in the US to trust them?
The issue of trust is central to Big Bambú. To build the structure, Doug and Mike Starn seek out rock climbers, because of their ease with heights and familiarity with knots. The team of builders learn to trust one another, and to trust the bamboo (first used for construction 5,000 years ago in China). As visitors climb the structure, they must believe that the thousands of knots supporting them will hold. It's rare that an art lover is asked to trust her life to a sculpture. One might call Big Bambú a network of faith, a trust machine.
"Mike + Doug Starn: Bambú Shots" at the Kleinert/James Gallery in Woodstock documents Big Bambú since its origins in 2008. (The Starn brothers were photographers before they began erecting scaffolding.) Looking at pictures of the rock climbers / builders—many of them with long hair or beards—I was reminded of Occupy Wall Street, another collective "art installation" that grew organically in response to practical needs. Big Bambú has no blueprint. The Starns give a description of the width and height they're looking for, choose the location, and allow the workers a maximum of freedom.
One of these builders was Derin Tanyol, curator of the Kleinert show (although she prefers to call herself the "organizer"); she worked on the installation at the Venice Biennale in 2011. This show was her idea. "I saw the photographs of Big Bambú as a body of work; they are not simply snapshots," Tanyol remarks. This is the first photographic exhibition documenting Big Bambú.
Some of the photographs offer vistas from the bamboo towers. One photo resembles a tribal hut in the sky above Manhattan, looking out on Central Park and the skyline. It might be a bucolic postapocalyptic postcard of Balinese villagers camping atop the abandoned Metropolitan Museum.
Fernand Léger, the French Communist artist, often painted construction workers laboring within a lattice of steel beams, as if to suggest that all humans inhabit a network of mutual support. A photo of 11 builders, standing together in the sky, enmeshed within a lattice of bamboo, seems to quote Léger. Other pictures focus on the structure of Big Bambú. Against the sky, with no sense of scale, the installation becomes abstract, evoking a geometric bird's nest, or a three-dimensional Jackson Pollock canvas. Also in the show are two bamboo sculptures. The larger one, mounted on the wall above the stage at the Kleinert, looks like a Laotian pipe organ from the third century BC.
The progenitors of Big Bambú, Doug and Mike Starn, are identical twins born in 1961 in New Jersey. They have been collaborating on artworks since they were 13. "When I think about Mike and Doug Starn, I think of them as one artist," notes Tanyol. "They never disagree in public. They are famous for finishing each other's sentences." The highly collective enterprise of Big Bambú emerges from a collective of two.
Mike and Doug Starn (plus a team of rock climbers) will appear at the Kleinert Gallery on Saturday, July 12, at 4pm for the closing party. "Mike + Doug Starn: Bambú Shots" will be at the Kleinert/James Gallery in Woodstock until July 13. (845) 679-2079. Woodstockguild.org.