Sep 29, 2010

A Bamboo Castle in the Air

Rather hesitantly, I stepped onto what looked like a completely ad-hoc pathway that disappeared into a crazy mess of bamboo above my head. In spite of having grown up in India—where tall bamboo structures go up every day, as temporary shelters or scaffolding —I was just a bit scared. Then the little old lady in my tour group passed me by; effortlessly climbing up the path with her grandchildren in tow. Duly ashamed, I entered Big Bambù: You Can't, You Don't, and You Won't Stop – Mike and Doug Starn’s latest installation that rises 40 feet above the rooftop of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Big Bambù has none of the precise order of the scaffolding one sees in Mumbai or Hong Kong. The installation’s defining visual characteristic is chaos. Pieces of bamboo stick out willy-nilly anywhere, the 4,000 poles crisscross the space all around me, till I can hardly see the sky above. From a thousand ties and knots, ends of coloured rope hang above my head. Initially, those knots are the only sign of human agency in a structure that otherwise looks like some supernatural hand dropped a bunch of sticks onto the museum’s roof. Then I notice two human figures, hanging in mid-air, off some poles in one corner of the installation, busily tying knots. Big Bambù is a work in perpetual progress – the artists and their team will continue adding to it over a six month period.

Mike and Doug Starn are both afraid of heights, so they had to hire others to build for them. They originally considered bringing traditional artisans from China, but they realized that the artisans’ experience might introduce an element of pre-determination into the artwork.  At all costs, the Starns wanted their structure to be random. They hired a group of people who weren’t acrophobic, were good with knots, had no building experience, and came from outside the art world – rock climbers!

I can see little touches of the rock climbers’ creativity everywhere, in the choice of rope colour, in the myriad ways in which they have used the bamboo, celebrating its elasticity, the visual quality of its nodes. Every curve of the path is an opportunity to create a unique pattern, to bend the bamboo in a different way. A particular view of the city, seen from 110 feet above the ground, spontaneously inspired one climber to put a little bench into the structure.

I am used to considering bamboo in rather functionalist terms: its structural strength, its sustainability. In India, bamboo is a utilitarian material, used in construction, in furniture, or in the stretchers that carry the dead bodies of Hindus to the cremation grounds. The bamboo that the Starns have used comes from South Carolina, not Asia, but I begin to see with new eyes a material I have known all my life.

The artists liken Big Bambù to a living organism. It is continually growing, yet fully complete at every stage. All human civilization operates this way, they claim, including our cities and our lives. That feels a bit of a stretch to me, but standing within a bamboo jungle, with the bright summer sun on my face and New York City stretched out below my feet, I do realize what an optimistic work of art Big Bambù is. Though the Starns had a structural engineer look over their very sketchy plans, it would be impossible to control a structure that was being built by people who were learning on the job. Yet Big Bambù manages to stand, and bear the weight of my tour group. It will continue to grow, and by the end of it, take the form of a cresting wave.

The clock had struck noon by the time I got back to the ground, and the space under Big Bambu had completely transformed. The overhead sun cast dappled shadows on the museum’s roof, on the shoulders of the people walking between the bamboo poles, on the blond hair of children who were too little to climb the structure. In that magic moment, I felt a fleeting truthfulness in Mike and Doug Starn’s statements about life and organisms and suchlike, and realized what it is that they have actually managed to build – a bamboo castle in the air. I desperately want to believe that the Starns are right in their optimism, and that we will all have lives like that, learning every step of the way, and ending with some definite form. 

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