Rooftop Spectacle and a Soft Breeze: Big Bambú at the Met

Big Bambú: You Can’t, You Don’t, and You Won’t Stop is a colossal bamboo sculpture by Doug and Mike Starn installed on top of the Metropolitan Museum of Art through October 31 that visitors can ascend while on a tour.  I initially thought it was surprising for a giant sculpture by two contemporary artists primarily known for their photography to take center stage at the Met, a museum not often associated with risky contemporary art. But I found it even more unexpected that an institution as grand and mainstream as this was offering an opportunity for the public to climb on a sculpture held together exclusively by climbing rope, hovering over the Manhattan skyline.  Museums are usually hypersensitive to the safety of their visitors (and the affiliated liabilities); a tour that requires signing a waiver struck me as a highly atypical museum experience and one I was determined to encounter first-hand.

From the beginning it was clear that climbing Big Bambú would be a serious undertaking.  Fourty tickets to the guided tours are released two times per day from the Met’s education center, once at 9:30 am for morning tours and again at 12:00 pm for afternoon tours. When I arrived at the museum around 12:20 pm on a Friday afternoon, a line of 40 people had already formed.  After waiting at the end for about ten minutes, I was informed that I was the last person to be going on a tour that day and that I needed to arrive back in this space at 3:15 pm, sharp.

At 3:15 pm, the pre-tour process indeed began. Members of the group of twenty waiting to ascend Big Bambú were approached individually, asked to sign the waiver, which, among other considerations, reminded us that temperatures could be very high and that we “will not have immediate access to water or shade on the tour.” As I read through the paperwork, I was reminded of the warnings and disclosures often presented before embarking on a “thrill” activity of some kind; flying on a zip line through the canopy in Mexico, riding a mechanical bull on the University of Colorado campus, attempting the flying trapeze in the Sonoma Valley were several experiences that came to mind.

After everything was signed, the tour group was brought to a small locker room. Mimicking rollercoaster procedures, we were asked to leave all loose belongings: cameras, purses, hats. We were even told to find  a secure place to fasten our tiny, aluminum admission buttons.  As I waited for the other tour attendees to relinquish their things, I had time to wonder about the adrenaline aspects of the forthcoming experience: Was I naively calm? Would this be the equivalent of a museum thrill ride?

Big Bambú installation view, May 2010 Photo by Doug and Mike Starn © 2010 Mike and Doug Starn / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, image from Metropolitan Museum of Art/flickr

At last brought up a flight of stairs to the top of the Metropolitan, we were met with Big Bambú. Constructed from a mass of bamboo stalks and branches sculpted by the artists and a team of rock climbers, the work is splayed across the entirety of the museum’s roof garden. Mangled knots of red and blue climbing rope binds the sculpture’s joints (the artists have used the terms “organism” and “arteries” to describe the work), contorting the bamboo pieces into the shape of a cresting wave. At the time of my visit, the structure peaked at 30 feet above the surface of the roof, but the artists and climbers will continue building and altering Big Bambú for the duration of the exhibition, ultimately bringing it to a peak of 50 feet. Despite being at the lowest scale of its form, there was a looming quality to Big Bambú, its scale daunting and unbalanced shape precarious.

Doug + Mike Starn, "Big Bambu: You Can't, You Don't and You Won't Stop," 2010, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The roof was an easy location for this sculpture.  A chaotic structure had been placed on top of an orderly institution. The obvious juxtapositions of the organic materials of the work set against the trees below the museum in Central Park also introduced opportunities to consider the dynamics of human creation and natural existence. But beyond these concerns, Big Bambú also bears a relationship to the human fascination with the rooftop as a site for spectacle. Although ascending a tall structure is itself an affair among TV towers and the remaining world’s fair projects, the thrill can be amplified by erecting another experience on top of the tall building.   The Stratosphere in Las Vegas is topped by several rides that simulate falling and hanging, thus inducing the highest level of thrill possible; Chicago’s Willis (formerly Sears) Tower recently added “The Ledge,”  a glass cube offering visitors a more death-defying view of the city through the structure’s floor.  The elaborate waiver and waiting process of touring Big Bambú made experience of this artwork seem comparable to other thrill experiences seem inevitable, but everything changed when the tour entered the sculpture.

The Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada

Once inside the structure, New York’s 90+ degree weather dissipated;  in its place we were offered shade and a light breeze. The path began with a steep incline and series of handmade steps, abruptly elevating the tour to Big Bambú’s 30 foot peak. Yet this ascension was entirely without spectacle; within the golden stalks and dried leaves, we were fully encased by the art, the group appearing comfortably secure and without concern for the height at which we were taking in a panoramic view of Manhattan.  In contrast to the “3 second rule” theory that museum visitors spend less than three seconds with each work of art they encounter , the tour attendees engaged with this work of art effortlessly. They touched (this was allowed) the branches, noted the aural aspects, asked questions about the Starns and their past work,  and lingered naturally on a small bench embedded in a pocket of the structure with a particularly luscious view. The effect was simple enjoyment; in the Starns’ space, no one feared the contemporary art.

In direct antithesis to the waivers, warnings and procedures, Big Bambú’s success was its lightness of being. Thrill experiences are often most enjoyed when they have finished; in contrast, the Starns’ piece is best experienced in all of its immediate presence, taking in the experience as-is.  Although those with specific interests in contemporary art consistently appreciate opportunities to become immersed in it, the general public are typically difficult to convince. In the instance of Big Bambú, spectacle may draw people in, but once inside, you can’t, you don’t and you won’t stop, because you don’t want to.