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Review: Imagine Bamboo is Everywhere

As much as I’d like to think that it was a moment of epiphany, stood gazing pensively at a painting by Jasper Johns at Tate Liverpool, that inspired my adoration of art and the art world, it wasn’t. It was events like Imagine Bamboo is Everywhere.

Commissioned and supported by Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, and each of the councils within it, this wide-reaching public art project focusses on the future of sustainable materials, and encourages kids and adults to think differently about how they engage with and adapt to challenges.

The main challenge here, as I’ve been reliably informed, is how to connect bamboo to each other without degradable strapping. Turns out that answer lay with Faith Bebbington, the artist best known in Liverpool for her gigantic animal sculptures, built from recycled and rescued milk bottles.

[Apologies if I’m breaking a trade secret here…] Apparently, bamboo connects exceptionally well by heating milk bottles around the joins so that they melt like a hard shrink-wrap forming more reliable bonds.

I realise it might not be the most ground-breaking discovery of the year, but it is important. It’s important because artists like Faith have been set loose on a material, which despite centuries of use as a building material, is still barely scraping the surface of its potential.

In a world where even traditional hazel and willow coppicing is falling short, and modern forest management is rarely regenerating sustainably, the answer to how we build a more reliable, sustainable, green, world, could lie elsewhere in the plant kingdom; with bamboo.

While there are well over 1000 species of bamboo (split into 91 genera, thanks for asking), not all are hardy in the UK. Of the handful that are, most are either so invasive that they shouldn’t be grown, or have rhizomes so uncontrollable that we’re scared to grow them in our gardens, let alone commercial plantations.

Enter Michael Brisbane, president of the The Bamboo Society (European Bamboo Society Great Britain), following an incredibly successful nursery dedicated to hardy and tropical bamboos. Having literally travelled to Indonesia in search for tropical bamboo, which is now homed at the Eden Project, it’s safe to say there are few more knowledgeable horticulturalists to advise on this next part.

Turns out, that just like any timber, there are some species that just fit the bill. The one that has become crucial to Imagine Bamboo, and the Bridge to Bamboo project run by the Imagineers before that, is Borinda bamboo (specifically Fargesia papyrifera).

Borinda bamboo is hardy down to -15°C, they clump, spreading slowly and manageably, and reach 6m tall in around ten years. Once harvested, the stems (culms if we’re being finicky) are about 8cm across and incredibly hard waring. They make for an incredibly good building material, particularly for the purposes of Imagine Bamboo is Everywhere, and the creative rigours they’ve tested it under.

The only problem? It’s actually really, really, really tough to get hold of in the UK. Orit Azaz, artistic director of the project, won’t let that stop her though, turning this lack of materials into an extra strand of the project, and building awareness as she goes.

Anyway, I digress. Bridge to Bamboo is one of those projects, if you were lucky enough to come across it at a garden festival, summer fair, or high street near you through August, that you’re unlikely to forget. That’s important, because seeing performers riding bamboo-lad vehicles, and doing acrobatics 6m in the air, balanced on open structures woven from seemingly-too-flexible bamboo, is joyful.

And that joy wasn’t a choice, it was something put in your face, and brought to every corner of Merseyside so everybody was anarchically introduced to the idea of bamboo as not just a building material, but a creative tool too. One that could be integral to the future of building sustainable events like these without any of this explanation.

This long-running project, coordinated by Imagineer Productions, and developed in Merseyside through several iterations, and a few different titles, is at an end (for now), but will have inspired young artists.

Those artists, stumbling across events like this, and the chaotic joy they offer, will know that art exists not just in the city centre galleries their school takes them to on coaches, but right on their doorstep.

Imagineer Productions are developing new work now, but legacies of Imagine Bamboo will be seen throughout Liverpool for years to come, with many of the artists retaining some or all of their work for future use.

Follow Imagineer @imagineeruk, and discover the artists, or revisit their work at www.imagine-bamboo.co.uk

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith