"The Mikado Tree", originally made for the World Expo in Shanghai, is a monumental sculpture made of painted aluminium and concrete. It represents a tree trunk topped with a circular foliage of sharp, tangled “Pick up Sticks” (or “Mikado” sticks, as the game is known in French, the artist’s native language). The sculpture seems to be made up of opposites: its rounded, open top calls to mind a dandelion, yet its trunk is solid and heavy; it recalls both a tree and a man-made game. These differences form a playful commentary on how cultures mix, and how the natural fuses with the artificial in daily life.
Most importantly, though, Tayou sought to make a large-scale work based on a universal game that may have originated in China but has travelled across cultures and has been played by generations of children worldwide. Mikado (or Pick up Sticks) is a game of skill, with two to six players. It uses slim wooden sticks that are are bundled together and held in one hand that touches the ground. When they are released, they form a circular jumble. Players must pick up one stick, without moving the others. A description of the game appears in Buddhist writings from the 5th century A.D. and apparently it spread through Asian and then Europe, as well as across the Bering straits to the Native Americans. The game’s simplicity enabled its extraordinary spread across different civilizations, with many different variations. For example, apparently Italians call the Mikado game "Shanghai".
For Tayou, Mikado is a symbol of cultural connection: "There are no borders in culture. Just as the sky is an indefinable dimension," he says. "Someone once said: 'Culture is that which remains when one has forgotten everything else.' I see culture as a kind of interaction and mixture of diverse flavors and tastes."
"I have always been trying to express myself, whether you call it art or not," he adds. "Art is for me a way to survive: not only to eat, drink and sleep, but to feel good, sharing stories and enjoying people. I didn’t plan to be what I am today… Even though my predecessors were living in the bush, through my education and languages I have had the tools to understand the western world."
The Cameroon-born, Belgium-based artist studied law before deciding to become an artist. He began exhibiting in the early 1990s – a time of political and social upheaval across West Africa, and his early work focused on social issues such as AIDS. More recently the artist has been focusing on sculpture and installations. Tayou is renowned for making hybrid works that combine diverse materials – often found and discarded – with an improvisational sense of craftsmanship.
He has travelled the world for his exhibitions, including solo shows at the Serpentine Gallery, London (2015); the Fowler Museum at UCLA (2014); Kunsthaus Bregenz (2014); MACRO, Rome (2012); MUDAM Luxembourg (2011) and the Malmö Konsthall (2010). Describing himself as an explorer, Tayou sees art as a way to connect the global village: "I’m living simultaneously in both worlds; traveling from Africa to Europe is for me like traveling from city to city. My tradition is the human tradition."