The Big Bambú is a 25 to 33 metre high permanent installation, by American artists Mike and Doug Starn, at the Macro Museum in Rome. Sited in the Testaccio district, the museum is a symbol of regeneration for the neighbourhood in the former city stockyards. The Big Bambú is an elevated performance space stage with seating for 50 people. A double helix stair and labyrinth paths take the visitor up to two ‘living rooms’, where c.80 to 120 visitors can wander freely at any one time.
The bamboo structure was made by a construction crew of 15 US based and 10 Italian rock climbers. The sculpture was commissioned through the Enel Contemporeana programme, which involves the commission of an original artwork every year based on the theme of energy..
The bamboo “Architecture-Sculptures” by Mike and Doug Starn are able to transform locations radically. The apparent lightness of these structures brings an idea of spiritual, not geographical, nomadism to mind. Their construction is a process of coordination rather than organization, just as the construction of the ships in the Republic of Venice during the sixteenth century: the tension of the work comes to life from this interlocking of seemingly antique building methods and the clearly evident contemporary result. These sculptures, albeit of enormous dimensions, are in no danger of expressing neither monumentality nor self-celebration. The series in bamboo is in reality an “anti-monument” that lauds the creative process and conviviality. Through this work, the Starn brothers have shown that it is possible to create one of the very few pieces of contemporary art that despite being presented as a sculpture embraces organics and life and demonstrates the ability to draw in the spectator and englobe the viewer as an integrating part of the process. Also the choice of materials, simple yet extremely strong, in itself conveys a powerful message and symbolism that evokes concepts of optimism and flexibility – flexibility that not only refers to the physical properties of the material but also to those relating to the mental and conceptual. It may be said that the bamboo project is a representation in space of the human activity known as imagination. The Starn piece is much more complex than a simple tower. The work doesn’t only bond to a vertical architectural development. The structure allows both the vertical and horizontal to cohabit in the spaces. It doesn’t merely rise but also spreads outwards; it moves skywards again to then return to the ground. The unpredictable crisscrossing of the bamboo also serves to reflect the contradictions of human life which is much more similar to an intricate entwinement, however perfectly calculated, than an ascent to the top of the tower. Even in its precision, the project appears as an impromptu process: the visitor must respond to this extemporaneousness by moving unpredictably and spontaneously within the piece itself. There is playfulness in the Starn brothers’ work even though it is neither a toy nor an amusement park. At an amusement park visitors are asked to abandon themselves to the space. This piece requires the visitor to actively participate, as if the work had never been finished; were in constant transformation – as if the sculpture built itself in its own unique way every time a spectator entered. This is a “magical” piece of architecture and sculpture that answers to the individual’s culture rather than a collective one despite being the fruit of a collective effort. It is an effort that with every step opens the doors to new personal experiences that at times can even be intimate. Even in its details, like the ropes that bind the joints and the intercrossing bamboo, all show the individual gesture that is manual and not mechanic.
It is not a piece that can be banally termed ecological. It is biological. From its conception to its realization to ultimately its fruition, this piece has always been alive. It is an organism that transforms, moves and adapts itself to natural time as if it were human time.
It is an organism that grows not in dimensions but in sensations.
Enel Contemporanea – previous commissions: 2011, Carsten Höller. Double Carousel with Zöllner Stripes. MACRO – Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome. In 2010 Dutch duo Bik Van der Pol’sButterfly House inaugurated the new MACRO – Rome Contemporary Art Museum. In 2009 Doug Aitken created an open-air installation on the Tiber Island in Rome. In 2008 Jeffrey Inaba installed an eco-sustainable waiting room at the Policlinico Umberto I Hospital in Rome. In 2007 three works were commissioned – at the Piazza del Popolo, Rome by Italian artist Patrick Tuttofuoco; an interactive water fountain by the Danish Jeppe Hein in the Garbatella district; and a lunar eclipse by the English Angela Bulloch above the Ara Pacis in Rome.
Enel is Italy’s largest power company and the Enel Contemporanea programme involves the commission of an original artwork every year based on the theme of energy. Enel is also the main sponsor of the 54th and 55th Venice Biennial International Art Exhibitions in 2011 and 2013.
MACRO – Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome, Via Nizza 138, angolo Via Cagliari, Rome.The Big Bambú is on display from December 11th 2012. Admission free.
Thanks and acknowledgement to Jess Smulders Cohen for information on this project.