Artists Mike (L) and Doug Starn during installation of Mike + Doug Starn: Big Bambú "Minotaur Horn Head" from the 2012 Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Rome. We're getting our own wave of bamboo when "This Thing Called Life" opens June 10 at MFAH.
Artists Mike (L) and Doug Starn during installation of Mike + Doug Starn: Big Bambú "Minotaur Horn Head" from the 2012 Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Rome. We're getting our own wave of bamboo when "This Thing Called Life" opens June 10 at MFAH.
Photo by Sirio Magnabosco

Surf's Up at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston With the Immersive Big Bambú

When it comes to this summer's surf-tastic exhibit over at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, we almost didn't become the next chapter in the continuing story of Big Bambú.

Artist brothers Mike Starn and Doug Starn are so hot right now that they can barely stop to catch a breath. They've been busy building "Geometry of Innocence," a labyrinth constructed out of bamboo at the outdoor Art Playground of the Ordrupgaard Museum (near Copenhagen).

It's definitely a "who you know" situation that compelled the identical twins to agree to install their next massive, organic installation in Houston. MFAH Director Gary Tinterow was there as witness when the Starns set New York on fire eight years ago, building a 100 foot long wave of bamboo on the roof garden of The Metropolitan Museum of Art that continued to grow and evolve as the seasons unfolded. It went on to became the ninth most-attended exhibit in the museum's history.

It was that friendship that was formed while Tinterow was serving as The Met's chair of Nineteenth-Century, Modern and Contemporary Art that brings the Starn brothers to H-Town. What sets our installation apart is that "This Thing Called Life" is being constructed entirely inside, making it the first time Big Bambú has been built indoors.

"What's really important I think are two things. This is the first time they’re engaging actively with a monument of modern architecture," says Alison de Lima Greene, MFAH's Isabel Brown Wilson Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, about the museum's Ludwig Mies van der Rohe–designed galleries.

She says previous installations of Big Bambú — including the 54th Venice Biennial, with its rich history, and Japan's Teshima Triennial, with its forest-like environment — were always site-sensitive.

"[The Starns] don’t just plug it in. This is the first time they're working with an architect like Mies van der Rohe. We have a huge two level space with a balcony," says de Lima Greene.

"Every other installation when people entered the Big Bambú they climbed into it from below. They walk into it and climb up and then come down. The whole point was ascent."

In addition to the air-conditioned environment — a must for our sweltering summers — she says the Houston exhibit is also physically and conceptually different. "In the past their work has a suggested wave form but this is the first time you don’t climb a wave, you surf it. Both brothers are very much surfers from their youth; they grew up near the Jersey shore so to be able to surf their creation and go down it is a radical change."

Mike + Doug Starn: Big Bambú, installation in progress at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, June 10–September 3.
Mike + Doug Starn: Big Bambú, installation in progress at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, June 10–September 3.
© Photo by Mike and Doug Starn

Yes, "This Thing Called Life" comes with height requirements and some warnings about proper footwear, but even visitors unwilling to cross a bridge through a matrix of 3,000 poles of bamboo can still find much to enjoy.

"Traveling down the path is only one part of the exhibition. There will be lots of people who prefer not to travel the path: fear of heights or not sure of foot or you have three small children with you," says de Lima Greene.

She says visitors can still explore from the main level of Cullinan Hall by walking a path or wandering through the eddies and swirls. "[The artists] really see it as an oceanic wave that sweeps the viewer through the experience of the space." The ground level sea of bamboo also is wheelchair accessible.

This marks the fifth year in a row that the MFAH has gifted Houstonians with an immersive summertime experience. "This Thing Called Life" is not only the next chapter of Big Bambú, it's also the next chapter in our ongoing love affair with art where we become part of the artistic landscape. Previous exhibits included 2017's "Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest and Worry Will Vanish," 2016's "Kusama: At the End of the Universe," 2015's "Shadow Monsters" and 2014's "Soto: The Houston Penetrable."

"This Thing Called Life" opens June 10 and runs through September 3 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 12:15 to 7 p.m. Sundays, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org, free to $18.

Exhibit extras: As the artists place the finishing touches on the exhibit prior to its opening, viewers can watch the progress live during installation hours on a Nest Cam IQ. For those wanting to dig deeper, Gary Tinterow will talk with Mike and Doug Starn in a Conversations with the Director event from 6:30-7:30 p.m. June 7. For information, click here, $25 to $35.

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