Doug and Mike Starn’s “Big Bambú” has attracted a right melee of folks to the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston — I know because I was there, in the throng of its second open weekend in June. The gallery was frothing with children, who had been dragged away from their smart phones by parents hoping to celebrate a tech-devoid Father’s Day at the museum. And in their digitally-deprived stupor, these Gen Z’ers stood agog at what was easily the most Instagrammable moment of their Sunday: a two-story installation of 3,000 bamboo poles.
While the “Big Bambú” series attributes its first iteration to a showing in the brothers’ studio in 2008, the multi-tiered 3,200 pole project gained public attention during its debut at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010, sitting atop the museum’s roof — and has since traveled to Italy, Japan, and Israel.
At the time of its opening, art critic Karen Wilkin wrote that it was not a “significant sculpture… it’s more of a phenomenon. But it’s a delightful addition [to the Met] for the next six months — a temporary, ecologically correct folly designed to entertain.” Wilkin’s review is easily interpreted as a well-intentioned, soft blow for a project named after a Cheech and Chong album.
But in her statement, Wilkin set to words what has shrouded every recent Yayoi Kasuma installation (though my personal opinion would be to give Kusama’s work infinitely higher deference), spawned Los Angeles’s Museum of Ice Cream, and encapsulated the popular ‘Rain Room’ installation — does entertainment of a visual, tangible, sensory nature count as art?
Cut to the MFAH.
In its current recapitulation, named “This Thing Called Life,” the structure rises 30 feet from the floor of Cullinan Hall, reaching to the second-story balcony of Upper Brown Pavilion, like a crested wave of lashed wood that shapes an underbelly of navigable forest. For the Starn brothers, this reads as a metaphor for the cultural currents that bind us together. Visitors are invited to walk across the bamboo bridge that extends from the balcony into the wave’s fulcrum and drops you off at ground level—it should be noted that these adventurous visitors must be at least six years old, wearing flat, rubber-soled shoes, and need to be able to walk unaided.
I entered the line of waiting visitors, reassured by a docent that the line moved quickly and it would only be about 30 minutes from where I was standing — she under quoted me by about 15 minutes.
In my 45-minute wait, I was able to do a sincere amount of eavesdropping. The parents-with-college-age-daughter in front of me kept murmuring over how hard it must have been to put this thing together—a fair assessment of “This Thing Called Life.” The installation depended upon the work of several professional rock climbers who helped scale the wooden structure and raise it to prominence within the gallery space. The climbers’ ropes punctuate the space with color and reaches out to almost languidly tap visitors on the shoulder, as a reminder to pay attention to their surroundings, while they wander through the structure.
Quickly, my attention turned to the two couples behind me. Consisting of a small group of baby boomers slightly warmed up from a high-end brunch, they not-so-excitedly waited their turn while planning their next cocktail. I ventured to tell them that if Aperol Spritz were their thing (loud exaltations about the drink made me assume they were, in fact, their thing), they should really consider doubling up to a Negroni—more punch for their buck. One of the women patted me on the shoulder: “You must be a bartender! What’s that like?” No, ma’am — just your local art critic with a penchant for drinks.
A man who I surmised to be her husband grumbled staunchly that he only consumed gin, on the rocks, and he was hoping this line would hurry up so he could continue his afternoon liquor indulgence. I didn’t catch his name but he was wearing an embroidered fishing shirt that said “Big Papa” across the pocket. He intermittently would lurch forward with updates on the Astros score. Big Papa was not particularly interested in what was going on — some would even say he was bored, due to the fact that he noted how boring the whole experience was several times. But he forced a belly laugh out of me when he sneered, “Is this even art?” To which his kind, patient wife responded: “Who cares?”
When it comes to “Big Bambú: This Thing Called Life,” I invite you to adopt the same attitude. Be discerning about what makes this worthy of a large summer show, one that follows on the heels of 2017’s summer exhibition, another heavily social-media-documented work from Pipilotti Rist.
But ultimately I don’t think you’re here for the art, if that’s even what you can call it (Big Papa, feel free to chime in with your thoughts). You’re here for the experience. And your best bet is to strap in with comfortable shoes, wait your turn, and hold on real tight—namely because it’s hard to walk a bamboo plank and take a selfie at the same time.