Big Bambu Opens to the Public in Beacon

By Peggy Roalf   Friday July 24, 2009

When the Starn Brothers' design for the new MTA station at South Ferry opened last spring, I had an idea the something else, just as big, might be in the works. When I contacted Gaudericq Robiliard, director of Starn Studio, he confirmed that my guess was, in fact, on target. The brothers, Mike and Doug, identical twins who first gained broad exposure for their photographic work in the 1987 Whitney Biennale, were creating a mammoth installation in which bamboo, not photography, was the proponent.

"The artwork began as a few pieces of bamboo tied together," reads the project description, "growing quickly as thousands of 30 to 40-foot-long poles are added to create a huge mass, a strong and complex network that currently measures more than 120 feet long. At its pinnacle, the sculpture cantilevers out as far as the bamboo pole network allows, and then bridges back down to the floor, forming an arch."


Left: Big Bambu, at the Starn Brothers' studio in Beacon, NY. Right: Climbers inside Big Bambu. Photos by and courtesy of the Starn Brothers.

Gaudericq arranged for me to visit the installation of Big Bambu, as it's called, a work in progress continually expanding within the former Tallix Foundry in Beacon, NY. George Mansfield, a Brooklyn expat sculptor who is the operations manager showed me around, as a new shipment of bamboo was being unloaded into the back of the cavernous building. Shane Hobel, a rock climber who directs the installation crew that works under the artists' direction, took me through the bamboo grove. Mike and Doug Starn were tied up elsewhere at the time, but a transcript of the email interview I did with Mike that week follows this article.

To say Big Bambu is awesome only begins to describe its scale, its appearance, its aroma, or its emotional pull. I found it just about impossible to put words to the experience of passing through it at grade level, and of peering into it from two stories up. One can only imagine what it must be like to spend your days working inside of it, 30 feet above ground.

As a visitor during a work day, I had a chance to leaf through the photographic documentation of the process the artists are making, which takes the form of an accordion-fold maquette for what I hope is a future book. In it can be seen the various methods the artists have devised for lashing the bamboo together as well as progress views of the installation. Click here to view a time-lapse animation of the construction.

This weekend the public is invited for an "Inside View of the Creation of Big Bambu, a Colossal Sculpture Composed of Bamboo Poles, Rock Climbers, Rope and Time," as the announcement reads. The Starn Brothers are opening their Beacon studio from 11 am to 4 pm for three days this summer: Saturday, July 25th (tomorrow) and again on August 8th and 22nd. Admission is free and open to the public, but please email ahead to let them know you are coming. Driving directions to the studio can be found on the website: click on the bamboo image for the information. If you take a Metro North train to Beacon, you will have to walk approximately two miles from the station, or take a cab.

CORRECTION:Yesterday's feature on the Noguchi Museum erroneously stated that free shuttle service is available from Manhattan. Round trip fare is $10; one way is $5.

Interview with Mike Starn, April 2009

Peggy Roalf: I can see how Big Bambu continues the dualistic themes of "Light and darkness, nature and technology, past and present, part and whole" that run through your work. How did you arrive at the idea of creating a marching network of bamboo?
Mike Starn: I'm not really sure how, but the thought of the same but different has been with our work since the very beginning, also the idea of interdependence, of many pieces coming together to make up something new... Also progressive time...

While we were working on our portrait of Manhattan island for the South Ferry subway station (in which we have combined a topographical map from 1640 rendered in marble mosaic and a contemporary street grid overlaid in relief), we were looking at the island from the perspective of the natural island becoming our city, which led us to the notion of a vast continuously constructed object, an organism reaching outward, touching ground again and then reconstructed from its own materials, persistently moving forward, and this impression would not let go over the next two years. This idea, for us, is not just about islands and cities, but cultures, societies, relationships, myself, habitats, and the world itself, all these are made of countless pieces and these pieces are catalysts - each catalyst is connected in someway to another catalyst, and simply through their existence and progressive time they effect a change and eventually what these catalysts are a piece of is completely different from what it once was, yet still completely and undeniably the same thing.

As this growth is happening all the time, and the old is being left behind, there are moments of enormous leaps and we don't know where we are going or where the ground is, and this change is unalterable. In Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara wrote ", is no longer me, at least I'm not the me I was." And this is always never over.

PR: Will you incorporate some of your photographic work from Gravity of Light into Big Bambu?
MS: Big Bambu will have a photographic aspect as well; in real time you can only experience the project in the moment you are witnessing it, always a complete structure/artwork, but that experience is only of the moments that you see it. The photographic Moment will persist in exposing the constant moments of its new and continuous completions, and finally we can stitch together the moments into a rendering of a fuller completion. The image attached is only stage one.

PR: Where did the idea of using rock climbers to do the bamboo-walking come from?
MS: Well, at first we had no idea how get this done, and we thought we might hire a team of guys from China who make scaffolds out of bamboo, but quickly realized that they would be too set in their ways. Then we just considered the question, "Who is not afraid of the heights and knows how to tie knots well?" Luckily there are mountains in our area. [referring to the nearby Shawangunk Ridge, or "Gunks," a haven for serious rock climbers.]

PR: Why did you choose to lash the stalks with climbers' rope, which look so industrial,  instead of a more natural material?
MS: It is safe, we use all different colors when we can get them, and we don't have any wish to make something that looks natural, that would be kinda boring.

PR: Where did you find enough bamboo of the right quality and size for the project?
A lot of googling led me to the closest farm, which is in Georgia.

Following are a few random background questions about the Starn Brothers' practice:

PR: When did you realize that the art and the craft of photography needed the kind of challenges you can offer?
MS: I would say we were about 17 years old, we had been doing our own photography since we were 13 and it was getting pretty boring.

PR: Were you always interested in science and technology? Have you studied or is it more of an ongoing exploration?
MS: Always: it's an on going exploration.

PR: When did you build your first custom darkroom - for making mural-size prints.
MS: When we were 14 or 15 [1975 or 76], we used 2 x 4's to make walls about 48 x 86 inches in our basement and lined them with plastic and then bought a lot of chemicals and sponges.

PR: How much invention/improvisation did it take to get a workspace that functioned for your need to make prints on a mammoth scale?
MS: We came up with the idea of simply taping together smaller pieces in art school, when we were 24.

PR: Do you also build the cameras you use, or modify existing ones?
MS: Modify.

PR: To what purpose?
MS: For the snowflakes series we needed to get great depth of field and more a of 3-D look out of microscope lenses, and not melt the snow. Right now we are developing a camera that in effect has a lens that takes in a orthographic view 170' wide. It will be made of about 130 web cams that will be knitted together in the computer to make one image. This will make live feed of the entire organism of Big Bambu possible, and make something invisible visible.

PR: Have you worked much with digital cameras or is it film [or glass plates] that makes photography an art?
MS: Anything can be a tool to make art.

Ed. Note: the projects referred to can be seen on the Starn Studio website; check the to the main menu at left side of page.

072409 starn studio


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