Thursday, April 22, 2021

Houston puts art into life—and life into art


HOUSTON (Sept. 2) — A huge exhibit entitled “Big Bambú: This Thing Called Life” closes tomorrow at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the public response to this bigger-than-life work of art this summer has been just as big, requiring a three-hour waiting line this afternoon just to get in.

Mike + Doug Starn: Big Bambú (Voxitatis)

Visitors are required to sign a waiver, which protects the museum from liability in case visitors can’t handle the experience. The structure’s perfectly secure, but one can never be too careful about lawsuits.

The installation art depicts the sea and is sculpted from some 3,000 poles of bamboo lashed together. It climbs 30 feet off the floor, and upon entering, visitors climb in and cross a bridge of bamboo that winds from the balcony into the wave’s curl, then deep into a “Big Bambú” sea. Eddies and currents are also seen at ground level.

The sea’s always changing, as the experience of walking through reveals at every cautious turn. Brothers Mike and Doug Starn installed the first instantiation of bamboo on the roof of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010, where more than 600,000 visitors walked in.

Bridging science, technology, and art

The museum in downtown Houston is currently running an exhibit entitled “Hidden Layers: Painting and Process in Europe, 1500–1800.” That exhibit also closes tomorrow, but panels are very informative, showing not only the art itself but also sketches and other materials used by the artists when they created the artwork.

For example, consider the painting of John the Baptist by Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia, an Italian painter who lived in the 1400s.


Conservators at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, have been able to use infrared radiation to uncover features of the painting that are invisible to the naked eye. Shown on the right is the infrared reflectogram, which shows dark lines made by the artist with a charcoal drawing instrument right on the canvas. The reflectogram also shows some under-drawings that are of a different reflectance, indicating that they were drawn with a brush, probably as the artist finalized the composition of the painting.

This exhibit also shows how x rays and other wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum have been used in order to study art that was made centuries before that technology was discovered. On one painting, it is possible to discern the placement of structures that supported the canvas from the back as the artist painted it.

The museum also houses a more permanent collection, including a sculpture by Anish Kapoor, who is perhaps most famous for the bean in Chicago’s Millennial Park. His sculpture here is entitled “Cloud Gate,” just as the one in Chicago is—though the Chicago version is more commonly known as “The Bean.” But for the record, Kapoor made the one in Houston before he made the one in Chicago. MFAH simply purchased it earlier this year for its sculpture garden.

The Houston version climbs to a height of 32 feet and weighs 21,000 pounds. It’s also made of highly polished stainless steel to reflect its surroundings, and it makes a great setting for selfies, as people in Chicago and Houston know.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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