Wave of the future
by Paul Smart
April 15, 2010 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Big Bambu, which has been in genesis at the former Tallix Foundry in Beacon for the last few years and premieres on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on April 27, is equal parts sculpture and performance. But its creators, the twins Mike and Doug Starn, are known primarily as photographers.

The work is a 100-foot-by-50-foot-by-50-foot cresting wave of more than 2,000 lashed bamboo poles that's continuously being made and remade. It was commissioned for the Met - after initial viewings, in part, at the 2009 Armory Art Fair, as well as at the Starns' new Hudson Valley factory studio - by Gary Tinterow, the Museum's department chair for 19th-Century, Modern and Contemporary Art, who keeps a home in Stone Ridge. After showing in New York, the full Big Bambu will travel to the Detroit Museum of Art for installation.

The Starns' arrival in Beacon from a Brooklyn warehouse in September 2009 was partly the result of their need for a space large enough to bring projects such as Big Bambu to life, and partly a natural progression of the Factory concept of making art that they inherited from the likes of Andy Warhol, whose Electric Chairs and other works of the mid-1960s heavily influenced their decision to become artists in the first place.

The two - identical twins born and raised in a small New Jersey town - hit the art world by expanding photography's limits in the mid-1980s, operating out of Boston for several years before finally moving to New York in 1989. They currently commute back and forth to Beacon from Brooklyn, where one of the twins is married. Those who know them describe them as shy but accessible, and very dedicated to their work.

"Although the Starn brothers are best known for their photographs, in fact their abiding interest is in organic systems and structures, as seen in their photographs of trees, leaves and snowflakes, or here, in Big Bambu," Tinterow has said of the new work that he's bringing to the Met later this month. "We are intrigued by the possibilities of this ever-evolving structure on our Roof Garden, which, when animated by the team of rock climbers, will become an organic system of its own."

In addition to the monumental Big Bambu, the two recently installed a 250-foot-long collage of tree and leaf photos, in various media, into the South Street subway station in New York; produced a monumental exploration of light and darkness, and interpretation of a classic Leonardo Da Vinci work, in their Gravity of Light installation in Sweden and Pittsburgh; and published a monograph and several photo editions of photo explorations of snowflakes.

What amazes fellow travelers in the art world has long been the Starns' collaborative way of working and their ability to have discovered a path that's completely independent and in their own control, from creation and fabrication to printing and publishing and representation - including their choices of galleries and museums and actual art sales - not to mention the ways in which, alongside the likes of Warhol, Joel-Peter Witkin, Gilbert & George, David Hockney and Anselm Kiefer, they've pushed what had been a staid medium (photography) into new relevance.

"Painting and sculpture have been explored from every conceivable angle, but photography's been locked in a box for decades...From the time we started taking pictures when we were 13, photography struck us as a stale medium that needed to be broken wide open, and that's part of what our work is about. We want to show the guts of photography - mainly because we love it so much. Each step in the process has its own beauty and limitless potential," noted Doug Starn in one of his last published interviews from 1990.

"Physicality, decay, art history and beauty are recurring themes, and desire is also an important idea for us," Mike Starn added. "What we want to say about desire is that whether we want it there or not, desire exists and should be embraced - because in a way, that's all art is: It's something people desire."

As for their collaborative process, the two have long remarked on the powers that their twin natures can summon. "We both work on every step of the process - and we disagree all the time," Doug said in that same Los Angeles Times interview from 20 years back. "The way we settle our disagreements is: Whichever of us is too tired to continue arguing gives in to the other. The biggest disadvantage to being a twin is that it's like having a mirror in front of you everywhere you go; but as far as our work, being twins is a tremendous help. Each piece starts long before we actually get down to making it, and it's great being able to talk our ideas through with each other every day."

"Our work habits are structured, inasmuch as we show up every day," added Mike, "but other than that we work in a completely intuitive way and are always making it up as we go along. I hate to admit this to myself, but we work better in chaos. We seem to thrive on it; but it means you don't have a life. My getting married stabilized things a bit, but not as much as I'd hoped it would."

For Big Bambu, the Starns have been directing eight to 15 rock climbers at a time, fully inhabiting the piece's central concepts of "self-organization, adaptation and the interconnectedness of all things."

"It is a temporary structure in a sense, but it is a sculpture - not a static sculpture; it's an organism that we are just a part of, helping it to move along," notes Mike Starn in recent press release. "We will be constructing a slice of seascape, like our photographs: a cutaway view of a wave continuously in motion. Just as our growth and change remains invariable, it is constant and unchanged."

"It represents me, in that I am who I was, and I am completely different than I was when I was a little boy," Doug Starn adds. "We need to make it so big in order to make us - all of us - feel small, or at least to awaken us to the fact that individually we're not so big as we think. Once we're really aware of our true stature, we can feel a part of something much more vast than we could ever have dreamed of before."

Big Bambu opens in the Cantor Roof Garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue in New York City on Tuesday, April 27 and stays up through October 31. For more on it and all things Starn, including open days at their magnificent factory studio in Beacon, visit or call (845) 765-1071.

"Modernism is a very intellectual movement, and beauty's been out of fashion in the art world for quite a while; it's seen as corny," Doug Starn said, 20 years back. "We don't feel that way at all." "Irony plays no part in our art at all," added Mike, as if defining themselves for the ages. We're glad to have them.

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