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Special Exhibition: Doug + Mike Starn on the Roof: Big Bambú

Curator Anne Strauss talks to Doug and Mike Starn about their new work, Big Bambú: You Can't, You Don't, and You Won't Stop, on view on The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden at the Metropolitan Museum through October 31, 2010.


Anne Strauss: I'm Anne Strauss, associate curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Mike Starn: Hi. I'm Mike Starn.

Doug Starn: And I'm Doug Starn.

Anne Strauss: Welcome to a conversation with Doug and Mike Starn atop the Metropolitan Museum, where the forty-eight-year-old identical-twin brothers are at work building Big Bambú, a monumental bamboo structure in the form of a cresting wave. Key to this ambitious undertaking with an eight-months-long lifespan are over three thousand bamboo poles, each one thirty to forty feet in length, thirty miles of nylon climbing rope, a pair of artists, and a team of rock climbers. Mike and Doug, how did Big Bambú come to be? And fill us in, if you would, please, on your vision for this colossal and complex endeavor.

Mike Starn: When we first developed the idea, several years ago, for the piece that we made in our studio, it was an idea about a piece that actually physically moved. With the footprint of the Roof Garden, we had to come up with something that would be able to continually move and change. So we came up with the idea of a seascape, which is something we've worked with in our photography since the eighties.

Doug Starn: We'd always done work that was about change. And—

Mike Starn: And how nothing is ever really finished. It's always going to exist in time and through time. Meanings change and objects change.

Anne Strauss: Well, let's talk about that ever-changing aspect in the work and about your vision that it be seen as a living organism.

Mike Starn: This piece is representative of what it means to be alive. And what we mean by that is not just simply something that's an animal, but it could be a city or a society, a culture. It's always complete, but that doesn't mean it's finished. It's always going to be changing and growing, and it's made of its constituent parts that all affect each other through time. And they're interconnected.

Doug Starn: Well, the climbers and ourselves working on the piece, we're really part of the organism, but it's also because the Met is allowing the visitors to actually come into it, it's allowing the public into it. And we're not sure how that's going to feed the piece yet. I'm certain it will, and I'm quite fascinated to see how that's going to change the piece and where it's going.

Anne Strauss: Talk about your team of rock climbers on this project and the construction process overall.

Doug Starn: We had heard of the scaffolds in Asia, and we wondered about getting people—

Mike Starn: Actually hiring some people that maybe had already done scaffolding. We realized that that would be a really bad idea, because they'd be so set in their kind of normal construction technique. So we realized that we actually need people that know nothing about building, but just make sure they're not afraid of heights. So we thought of rock climbers and they've just been fantastic.

Anne Strauss: Chaos is an underlying principle in the Big Bambú installation. When I see the piece, I see there's chaos in the randomly lashed-together bamboo poles. Yet at the same time, there's intricacy and truly fine craftsmanship interwoven throughout the piece.

Doug Starn: There's a certain craftsmanship with the knot tying. It's very—

Mike Starn: It's very methodical. It's very thoughtful. It's very present. You know, even though the piece can look total scattershot, it all takes time. It's about three minutes for each knot being tied. And you find a place to put a pole, you find an interconnection with maybe ten other poles, and just methodically knit one pole to another. And it is definitely very thoughtful at the same time it's chaotic.

Doug Starn: That's the way Big Bambú works. It's thirty-two hundred pieces of bamboo put together. And as we're working on it, five minutes goes by and all of a sudden there's somebody standing where it was just thin air moments before. And it's just a wonderful thing to see that growth and—

Mike Starn: Pieces affecting pieces.

Doug Starn: Yeah.

Anne Strauss: And throughout the piece, is there any decipherable logic or symmetry?

Mike Starn: It's...No. [Laughs] I don't think so.

Anne Strauss: Because to me, it's certainly unconventional, just as you are unconventional artists.

Mike Starn: Doug and I step back, look at it, and decide we want to create a line, a flow, direction. And, specifically in this piece, we're creating some ideas of currents and force from the waves. So we do tell the climbers, you know, "Start working in a thirty-degree angle and add a lot of larger, heavier pieces here." And then a system will start showing up. And then other action is thrown in in completely chaotic directions, and then you don't notice those pieces. So there's design and thinking going on, but certainly not symmetry.

Anne Strauss: There are two ways for visitors to experience this massive, impressive, and compelling sculptural installation: either at the Museum's Roof Garden level, which is open to everyone during regular Museum hours, where visitors can walk through among the bamboo poles and leafy, canopy-covered spaces; or along the elevated interior network of pathways on special guided tours, which are ticketed. Ultimately, there will be two internal, integrated, artery-like bamboo pathways. Can you talk a bit about the ideas behind the network of pathways?

Mike Starn: Well, just as a city gets its energy from the living things in it, and they pass through arteries and the roads, the highways, those are the things that feed it. And the same is true with Big Bambú. Our pathways are arteries where the bamboo is going to be fed up through, from our storage on the roof, into the piece, and then the bamboo moves throughout. And it's how we and the climbers get from place to place in a little bit easier fashion than trying to carry the bamboo pole at the same time you're climbing through like a monkey.

Doug Starn: We found out it was a lot of fun.

Mike Starn: Yeah.

Doug Starn: We had no idea. It was a very dry, conceptual piece about everything we've been talking about. But climbing in it, we feel like kids again. And it's amazing to have something so dry about growth and change and—

Mike Starn: But since it's about life, I feel that joy of life really comes through in the piece, in ways we just didn't expect it.

Doug Starn: I really can't remember being happier than I am up on the roof over Central Park. It's just incredible.

Mike Starn: And this is about you. You're the same person you were when you were a little kid, but you're someone entirely new now at the same time.

Doug Starn: It's about your family. It's about—

Mike Starn: It's about your mood. It's your health. It's your interconnection with the rest of the world that makes you who you are. It's important to realize that we're all in this together, and we're all affecting each other.

Anne Strauss: Many thanks, Mike and Doug, for speaking with me today on the subject of the highly anticipated exhibition of your work at the Met. You've been working together as artists since your teenage years. You initially made your mark in the art world as photographers in the 1980s, although your creative output really defies categorization, combining sculpture, photography, painting, video, and installation art. You've certainly animated the Metropolitan Museum's Roof Garden and taken our sculpture program that features the achievement of individual artists, now in its thirteenth year, literally to a new dimension and to new heights with your boundary-breaking project.

For those who wish to obtain tickets for the special guided tours of the elevated pathways, all information is available on the Met's website, metmuseum.org. If you are at the Museum, there is information available at locations throughout the building.

The exhibition Doug + Mike Starn on the Roof: Big Bambú is on view April 27 through October 31, 2010, weather permitting. The exhibition is made possible by Bloomberg. Additional support is provided by Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon B. Polsky. The exhibition is also made possible in part by the Jane and Robert Carroll Fund.

The Audio Guide at the Metropolitan Museum is sponsored by Bloomberg.

Narrator: This has been an Antenna Audio production.

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