The Floating Piers, the first project Christo has completed solo since the 2009 death of Jeanne-Claude, was, as usual, a sensation. For sixteen days, from June 18 through July 3 this summer, news from The Floating Piers overwhelmed the Italian airwaves and blogosphere, and crowds grew exponentially. Art, beauty, and celebrity intersected on a massive scale, as so often happens with Christo’s radical real world interventions, for which there is no category.
The language of art criticism hasn’t always been equal to the task of assessing an art that, in the case of the 2005 The Gates, Central Park even dominated the front pages of newspapers from The Daily News to The New York Times. From the first, the art’s populist appeal has often been read as an aesthetic affront verging on kitsch. “The Gates succeeds precisely by being, on the whole, a big nothing,” Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the New Yorker, though “It lets us get right down to being crazy about ourselves, in a bubble of participatory narcissism that it will be pitiable to have missed.”
What do you do with a work of art that simultaneously recalibrates perceptions of its surroundings and encapsulates the years-long political and technological process of its making? Since I first covered The Pont-Neuf Wrapped in 1985, it has seemed to me that aside from their stunning visual effect, the significance of Christo’s projects lies in how they embody and expose the issues inherent in the time and place of their appearance. In bringing people together they crystalize what drives people apart.
In 1995, when a recently reunited Germany was just beginning an uneasy recovery from its East/West dismemberment and murderous history, the artists shrouded the Reichstag in shimmering silver folds, redefining both German identity, and (as architectural critic Paul Goldberger noted in the New York Times) what a monument could be. In New York, The Gates became a mood-altering occasion for celebration in the wake of 9/11, reanimating both the winter landscape and the city’s mourning pall.
While The Gates was still to be seen in Central Park, I moderated a daylong symposium for the International Art Critics Association/USA, on “Art Democracy, and Public Space: The Christo and Jeanne-Claude Effect.” Art critics and historians such as Michael Kimmelman and Katy Siegel, artists such as Jeff Koons and Janet Cardiff pondered the effect of the art. The art critics Arthur Danto, Irving Sandler, and Carol Diehl weighed whether the temporary phenomena constituted art for the ages or merely spectacles of the moment. Ideas were no less layered than the works themselves.
The rich deposit of significance accruing to the The Floating Piers ranged from the sheer beauty of its nearly five–mile loop of golden walkways infusing land and lake with unexpected vistas, to the subtext of displacement, which has seldom been so palpable in the work of this Soviet-born émigré.
He and Jeanne-Claude may have first conceived The Floating Piers in 1970, but during the weeks that Christo’s walkways were connecting islands and mainland this summer, the island nation of Great Britain voted to dismantle its bridge to Europe. Thousands of Syrian refugees traveled over water to reach European shores and hundreds more died in the attempt.
But the mood was festive for the largely Italian, monochromatic crowd creating chaos as they pushed and shoved their way onto the piers. And Christo himself was ebullient when we toured his work together. The words tumbled out pell-mell, as he reeled off specs and avoided questions of meaning.
Christo’s SoHo Studio with Film Crew1, December 14, 2015
Amei Wallach (Rail): Christo, just for context, can we talk about your experiences growing up in Soviet-era Bulgaria, and your escape across borders into France?
Christo: I’m born in Bulgaria, but I’m not Bulgarian entirely. I’m half Macedonian, a quarter Czech, and a quarter Bulgarian. I was a little boy, and I was not allowed to go to school because my father [was an] enemy of the people. I was punished because I belonged to a non-Communist family. And my father was in prison, almost executed. He was a scientist. We were deprived; on our wall they had written, “Here lives the enemy of the people.” I grew up in that very nasty period of Stalinism, the last days of Stalinism. It was a horrible story. To do art in Bulgaria, and these countries in the east, was very hard; it was very old fashioned, conservative, 19th-century school. I know you were in the Soviet Union but that was in the late years. Basically in the Soviet Union there was a terrible, terrible control of art. There was no modern art, there were no books, so I didn’t know anything.
It was very difficult and very, very frustrating, and I was young, going to the National Art Academy. Basically, to be an architect, painter, sculptor, or decorative artist you go to the same school. For four years you study everything. I had two semesters dissecting human bodies, in the medical school. And after four years, you decided to become painter, sculptor, architect, or decorative artist. There were eight years of study, and I escaped in my fourth year. And this is why if anybody who asks me what school I belong to—architect, painter, or sculptor—I say, “You know I’ve still not decided what I am.” [Laughter.]
I was in Prague, another Communist country, visiting my relatives in 1956. And even though Prague was in a Communist country, it was almost the West. Then the Hungarian Revolution started [and was smashed, by Soviet tanks] and I escaped, with no relatives, no anybody. This is why I am so in tune with the people walking. I was like that, walking.
Rail: People are walking to escape, like you
Christo: Walking here. All the refugees in all the countries. I was like that, with nothing.
Rail: And then you found your way to Paris, and met Jeanne-Claude, and joined together in life and art.
Christo: From 1958 to 1964, when Jeanne-Claude and I came to New York, we lived in Paris. But I’m not French, you know. It’s very important you should understand my terrible struggle in the French milieu. If you don’t speak proper French, forget it. That was why I was gravitating more to Italy and Germany. It was very difficult in France. We sold very little in Paris. In the early ’60s we met a lot of Italian dealers, and they were very interested in the work, then Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland. We made many friends in Italy. Our project director for The Floating Piers, the project we are preparing now, is [curator] Germano Celant. We met Germano in the early sixties. He is organizing a huge exhibition this summer at Santa Giulia Museum in Brescia2 of all our projects involving water, Wrapped Coast in Australia, Running Fence, Surrounded Islands in Florida.
Rail: The Floating Piers will be your first completed project since The Gates, Central Park, in 2005, and that was the last project that you and Jeanne-Claude mounted together before she died in 2009. Could you describe The Floating Piers?
Christo: It’s a very tactile project. Basically, you will be walking over about three miles of piers, and one and a half miles of pedestrian street, from the medieval town of Sulzano on the mainland to the island of Monte Isola. You walk on the street, and after that walk on the water. The piers are about fifty-two feet wide. Like a house, the width of a house. They are almost fourteen inches high with sloping sides. You’re walking over deep-yellow colored fabric. On the water that fabric covers walkways made from 220,000 high-density polyethylene cubes. And they’re connected with 200,000 giant screws. And the cubes are not shaking like a boat. The entire thing is moving in big balance, and it’s very exciting, very sexy. Because it’s very, very spooky. Actually you should walk barefooted. That’s the best thing.
In the lakeside gallery, where Christo’s art is sold to finance the project, Lake Iseo, Italy
June 28, 2016
Rail: Out there right now hundreds of thousands of people are walking on your Piers. I’ve always thought with your projects that the people are very much what they’re about.
Christo: Those people are walking on water and they are walking on the earth and they are going nowhere. You don’t understand, they are walking to go nowhere. Can you imagine? We are moving a million people to go nowhere—not to shopping, not to visit friends, not to take a plane. To go nowhere! That is the great power of the work, between walking on the street to walking on water, to go nowhere. They walk with their children, with their wheelchairs, with their dogs.
And of course the project is very physical. It’s about yourself, about yourself walking on that very different surface, moving with the water. Did you walk it?
Rail: We’ve walked it two days in a row so far. It’s a kind of pilgrimage. Is it lit at night?
Christo: Yes, an American group in California fabricated a very special system that is used in mining. It is something that looks like a big suitcase, and when you open it there is a battery, and you unfold a two-and-a-half meter high light, and [when they are placed at intervals it becomes] like a boulevard. In the evening people walk very late. Starting at nine, the lights are on for ten hours and then they go back into their containers to be charged. Yesterday night there was madness at eleven o’clock.
Rail: My memory of you, for instance in Central Park, or with the Pont Neuf Wrapped, is how you and Jeanne-Claude were always driving around to look at your projects for the short time they were in place.
Christo: We’ll now be riding on the barge together, and we’ll see the whole project. You’ll see the people applauding us. We’ll go around the island, but the most beautiful thing is to see where the piers meet. And the big story, the one condition Americans don’t know, is that this project cannot be done in this way in the United States, it cannot happen in France, it cannot happen in the United Kingdom, it cannot happen in Germany.
Rail: Why is that?
Christo: I tell you what, this is a very deep lake: three hundred feet here [on the town side] and on other side 600,700 feet of water. Come here to the window. Look out here at The Piers. What is unusual about them?
Rail: I’m looking at these upright figures out there moving on a flat orange-gold surface over the blue water. The whole thing is unusual.
Christo: Very unusual. When I said to [architect] Norman Foster that we will do The Piers this way, he said it was insane.’
Christo: We have no parapet! You don’t understand. They walk on the water, three hundred feet deep water. There is no [edge or railing]. Try to do that in the United States!
Rail: Because of the insurance?
Christo: Not only insurance. They do not allow you. You cannot put anything on the water, any bridge, without a parapet. This is incredible!
Rail: Beautifully insane.
Christo: Completely insane. But this is why this project is unique. It would be impossible to do it in any other country but Italy. And also, here is something historic: apparently Italy is the only nation in the world, which in their constitution, they have an amendment about art and culture. It’s a part of the heritage of the nation. Like today, in the United States, you have several amendments, one very famous, number four, and number two is the guns. In Italy, number nine is art. [Laughter.]
Rail: You always learn something in making your projects that you didn’t expect. What are you learning from Floating Piers?
Christo: First, we didn’t expect to have so many people. We were thinking 15,000 to 20,000 people a day, because it is very demanding to walk. I walked with Vladimir [Yavachev, his nephew and director of operations], and really to walk 500 meters is quite a walk. The long pier is about one hundred kilometers, and walking it with Vladimir before it was finished, we took fifteen minutes at our pace. We walked fast like you walk on the sidewalks of New York. Italians probably would walk half an hour or more. But along there is nothing, no shops, or looking for The Gates, and when it is as hot as it is now, I was thinking many people would be discouraged. Probably they would turn back; too far to go. But we have between 600,000 and 700,000 people in less than ten days. They think by July 3 it will be a million. [It reached 1.2 million].
Rail: I would think that would make for problems.
Christo: The biggest problem is the congestion on the mainland, because it is a small town, they have no highway, no bridges, no infrastructure. That is something the government tried to overcome with many, many difficulties. They tried to stop the car, actually people literally walk in the roads to arrive to the entrance. Some take the train, but the trains are overloaded. It is something we cannot regret [nor rectify]; it is up to the government to regret all these things.
Rail: It seems to me that each of your projects reveals something about the place that nobody knew. For instance Wrapped Reichstag revealed the fissures and unhealed history as East and West Germany came together, and The Gates was about after 9/11 and its aftermath. So what is this about?
Christo: No, this is different. Those projects like The Gates, or the Reichstag were designed for a particular place. With this, we had a concept and we needed to find a site. It’s like Wrapped Coast in Australia. The first study was for the United States West Coast, not Australia. The same thing was true of Running Fence. This project is designed very much like Running Fence, and it is a very old project from ’70s. It is not like Reichstag, not like The Gates. In 1970 we had finished the Wrapped Coast in Australia and were working on Valley Curtain. We had a friend in Argentina, [art historian] Jorge Romero Brest. And he was saying he liked very much our work, why don’t we come to Argentina. The first proposal for Floating Pier, was for the Río de la Plata in Buenos Aires.
We didn’t get permission in Argentina. In 1995 we did the Reichstag and Jeanne-Claude said we should do that project we had, walking on water. At that time there wasn’t this invention [of pontoons made out of cubes]. There were normal pontoons like in a marina, and we would have had to cover them with wood and fabric. We proposed the project for an area of Tokyo Bay called Odaiba, with walkways going to two islands, and also covering pedestrian streets. We worked very hard, we worked two years, and we almost did the project. Then we had a big fight with the government of Tokyo and we walked away.
Jeanne-Claude died in 2009. In 2014, I said to Vladimir, and Wolfy [Wolfgang Volz, his official photographer] and Josy [Kraft, his registrar] that I would turn eighty years in 2015 and I had to do something very fast because I didn’t know how long I woud live. We are still working on Over the River for Colorado and Mastaba for Abu Dhabi, but now permissions are dragging their feet. I said, “I will tell you the story about Floating Piers, and let’s decide to do it very fast.”
Rail: Really fast. That was in 2014, this is 2016. The Reichstag took twenty-six years, and The Gates twenty-nine. Why were you able to complete it in such a short time?
Christo: Because we had great success getting the permissions in Italy. Between 1958 and 1964, when we lived in Paris, we exhibited very much in Northern Italy. I know these lakes, and I said, “Let’s look around; maybe some of these lakes would be suitable for the Piers.” And right away we decided it would be Lake Iseo because Lake Iseo has the only island in Europe with the tallest mountain on the island. This is not a normal lake, it was made from glaciers that were melted many thousands of years ago. The water is very deep, and the tops of mountains are sticking out. And 2,000 people live on this island called Monte Isola. They have no bridge. They need to take a traghetto [ferry] to go to the mainland, but for sixteen days, if we are successful, they will be able to walk on water. Okay, we’ll try to involve the mayor of Monte Isola, the mayor of Sulzano, and the authority of the lake appointed by the government in Rome.
Now from the beach of the city you can see another little island, and we needed that to complete the geometry of the project.
Rail: Who lives on that little island?
Christo: Well, one day, both Vladimir and Jonathan [Henery, Jeanne-Claude’s nephew, vice president of Christo’s CVJ Corp.] were walking, and there was an historical description saying that the island was a monastery in the 13th and 14th centuries, and a hospital run by nuns in the 19th century, and in the late 19th century it was bought by the Beretta family.
Rail: Beretta like the gun?
Christo: Exactly, the oldest gun-makers in the world. The only person we knew who might help is Germano Celant and we go to Germano secretly: we’ve got this project and we need to get permissions. And Germano said, I don’t know the Berettas, but let me think about it, and he made a call and found a friend who knew the family Beretta, and—imagine! We met the Berettas on July 7, less than two years ago.
Franco Beretta said he would help and introduce us to the president of the Lake Authority, the mayor of Monte Isola and to the mayor of Sulzano. And I remember we drove out to Sarnico in his Maserati, and he had a bag, and he would say to all the officials, “This is not a gun, it is binoculars.” But the biggest thing was that when we arrived and met the president of the lake, Mr. Giuseppe Faccanoni, he was very familiar with our projects. He is a gentleman in his late ’50s, or ’60s. He lives in the United States, he speaks English, and he is a relative of Nabokov.
Rail: Vladimir Nabokov, the writer?
Christo: Yes, and that was the biggest story. If somebody else than Mr. Faccanoni was in authority, the story would be different. And this is why the project happened in two years.
Rail: How did he help?
Christo: Of course he was very intelligent. He decided the project should be done very covertly, without my presence, so I did not come often to Italy. You know all these projects are done by a company, a real company, not a nonprofit. So our holding company in New York made a subsidiary called Floating Piers Company, an Italian company, which built the project here. The president of the company applied for permissions. And we were very clever, we never gave anyone a hard copy of the project. There was always an engineering description of the project, but the mayor did not have images of the project, the government did not have images of the project. There were always huge engineering applications by the engineering company about how the project should be built. And somewhere in the pages of the document it was mentioned that this was an Italian subsidiary of an American company, which would like to have an event for sixteen days late in June of 2016 by the artist Christo. My name belonged only there.
Rail: Why is that?
Christo: So that nobody would know the project is designed by me. To not have a controversy! And only after 2015, once we had all the permission, did we announce it.
Rail: Even though this work wasn’t built for this site, did you learn something about the area?
Christo: Of course I learned. This is a very important lake because through that lake the Romans got to Germany, and the headquarters of the Roman legion 2000 years ago was thirty-one kilometers from here in the town of Brescia, where is one of the greatest archeological museums. And there is a lot of iron from the mining of the Romans for battle uniforms. They have Roman baths also. And we choose this lake because it’s very simple, these are islands where people live, not like dead islands. It’s very important to connect islands where people live, because people walk on the water. Leonardo da Vinci, when he was making The Last Supper made a drawing of the lake which is in the collection of the Queen of England. And of course on the backside of Mona Lisa is still the mountain of Lake Iseo.
Rail: I know that the process is always such a large part of your projects, not just getting the permits, but also the industrial process of making these ambitious works. How did that go?
Christo: I will explain it to you. To build that project, we needed to have this incredible geometry, and the biggest work was to have a method to deliver all the material for this three kilometer Floating Piers. I will show you from the boat. All this was done, simultaneously, fabricating, transporting the cubes, positioning the anchors. When all this was ready, they assembled those pieces together and connected them to the anchors. That was incredible. But I tell you who were the workers who worked seven days a week no rest and sometimes overtime. During the Soviet time, sport was very important. High school students, instead of going to university, they went to a sports academy to become Olympic players, become champs. And I tell you that Academy in Bulgaria is still existing and we hired the sports students to work, weightlifters, runners, deep-water divers. They were flown from Sofia to Bergamo, and you will see them here. They are the core who built the project.
Rail: Before The Floating Piers I’d never heard of Lake Iseo, though of course everyone knows Lake Como and Lago Maggiore. This corner of Italian lake country will probably never be the same after this.
Christo: We pay them. We pay the rent for the streets. We arrange everything. Like all our projects we have absolute control, five kilometers from here to there. Nothing else can happen but us on Lake Iseo, no films, no anything, no hullabaloo. We are renting the streets including recovery, and we are paying rent for the water.
Onboard Christo’s Barge
We board the barge that Christo outfitted to carry divers and material, and that now conveys him on his surveys of what he has wrought. Everywhere we go people cheer him.
Rail: Why the orange-golden color?
Christo: You know the color is not the work of art. The work of art is everything: the color of the fabric with the color of the water with the color of the houses But one important thing is the cloth. We need to have the fabric continuously change with the sunlight, with the rain, with the water, dry very fast and of course all of that was why we use this type of synthetic fabric. The fabric is very, very heavy. On a 100-meter pier the cloth weighs over 1,000 kilos. One ton. Meaning we cannot transport the fabric on land. And all the transportation of the fabric was done by helicopter. It took four hours. The helicopter was open and the Germans packed special machines and it was sewn on the site. The entire project was unfurled from three o’clock in the afternoon of June 15 until two o’clock in the morning of June 16. On the site, with a storm and everything, and divers attaching the fabric in the water. And it was ready just for the press conference on June 16 at ten o’clock.
Rail: We have traced the rectangle around the little Beretta island and are now coming around towards the other side of the larger Monte Isola. Everything looks completely different here, against the mountains.
Christo: And even further on there it is completely different, like an arrow. The lines, they only have this commanding direction: go there, and there, like a boulevard in Paris. Not curving, not round. So that you want to go there.
Rail: It’s city planning and architecture.
Christo: Many of our projects like this one are beyond sculpture, they are like urban planning, like architecture and there are many similarities to an architect getting permission to build bridges or highways. This is why people cannot grasp the projects if they do not see it this way. When we wrapped the Reichstag the first critic who wrote about us for the New York Times was not an art critic, it was an architectural critic. Paul Goldberger.
Rail: It’s architecture, it’s engineering, it’s performance art, it’s conceptual art.
Christo: This is not performance.
Rail: The people walking on the piers are not performing? They’re dancing, and posing, and vamping, one of them is stretched out like Christ on the cross.
Christo: No, that is not performance. I don’t ask them to perform. When you walk on the street you don’t perform. They are not actors, they are real people. We have real guardians because there can be drama, it can be wet, you can have a storm. But that is not a theatrical thing. Some artists make spectacles. This is not a spectacle. Two nights ago we had a thunderstorm, incredible, spectacular. It looked like a Wagner opera. But that was not performance. That’s the real stuff, meaning the real pier, the real danger, the real water; the real thing, not virtual, not film. That is why we do this. It’s the real world. When the parliament of Germany first voted about permission for the Reichstag and we lost, it was not performance, it was the real parliament. It was real angst that we were losing the project, that it was defeated forever. This is why don’t say performance. It’s the real thing, it only exists for a short time.
Rail: And right now a lot of us seem to be spending our time in a virtual world.
Christo: I don’t have a computer, I don’t understand anything about computers. I don’t like to talk on the telephone. I like to see real people. I don’t know how to drive, I don’t have an elevator, I walk 90 steps several times a day. I don’t have a stool in my studio. I’m standing all the time moving around. And of course I love real senses of the real world, real kilometers, real water. And I say anybody who is not sensitive to that ought to be in an antiseptic room making painting or sculpture. You need to love the elements, elements of heat, wet, dry. The real things, even the wind if it’s raining is exciting. All our projects, it’s very demanding to go there, to walk there, to be there, to walk on the street. It is a work in urban space and rural space. And with that space we inherit everything that is that space and it becomes part of the work of art.
But I do it because I like it. Really, I am generally an optimist. I see that the world is full of misery. Myself, I was a refugee like the people going into the boats now. I know it is terrible. But I know I survived, and I am very optimistic because I was born like that. I believe that things can be solved and will be exciting.
- For “1964: Rauschenberg Wins!” Cinematographer: Mead Hunt.
- Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Water Projects, Santa Giulia Museum Brescia, Italy, April 7 – September 18, 2016.