Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude longed dreamed to make it possible to walk on water. That dream has finally been realised on a charming lake little-known outside of Italy called Lake Iseo. Nestled between Lake Como and Lake Garda, it is Lombardy’s fourth largest lake. Distinguished by thickly wooded areas much in the manner of Como, what sets Iseo apart is Monte Isola, which soars up 2,000-feet making it the highest lake island in all of Western Europe. Lake Iseo’s idyllic geographic make-up seems to have influenced Christo’s desire to stage here his latest fantastical outdoor artwork: a three-kilometre walkway entitled Floating Piers. Seen from high above from Santa Maria del Giogo in Sulzano, a small town inhabited since Roman times and situated at 3,000 feet, Christo’s work beams its saffron-like Dahlia coloured fabric as it stretches from the banks of Sulzano to Monte Isola and then wraps itself around the island of San Paolo.
The Floating Piers, Lake Iseo, Italy. Photography: Wolfgang Volz, courtesy of Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Since Jeanne-Claude’s death in 2009, Christo (born Christo Javacheff in Bulgaria) disappeared from the public eye. He and his wife had been inseparable for 47 years. She was known as the more vocal of the two, the propeller of his projects, while he was the incessant creator of his monumental and ephemeral artworks. They even shared the same birthday, June 13, 1935. Now Christo is back. The Floating Piers is the artist’s first outdoor installation since The Gates, which saw 7,500 shimmering gates align the walkways of Central Park for 16 days in February 2005. A project that reportedly pumped $250 million (Dhs918,236,545) into New York City, it also provided an upbeat artistic spirit after the 9/11 attacks.
A slender man with long strands of wispy white hair, Christo, 81, has a fiery energy that is contagious. He speaks passionately and quickly and with a thick Bulgarian accent. As a crowd of journalists, student recipients of the Christo Award and art professionals gather around him while remarking on the beauty of the golden colour of the Floating Piers, the artist exclaims, “The fabric is not the whole project! It is part of the whole thing – the trees, the islands. These projects evolve in the space – the houses, churches, people and mountains. They are all part of the aesthetic.” And the aesthetic, according to Christo, is all that the project is. As in his other artworks, there is no other assigned meaning or vision. “It doesn’t serve for anything except to be a work of art – a work of art that needs to be experienced.”
Pencil, charcoal, pastel, wax crayon, enamel paint, hand-drawn map, cut-out photographs by Wolfgang Volz, fabric sample and tape. Photography: André Grossmann, courtesy of Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Begun in 2014 and conceived by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the Floating Piers comprises 100,000 sqm of Dahlia yellow-coloured fabric atop 220,000 high-density polyethylene cubes allowing visitors literally to walk on water while bouncing ever so slightly as they do. The cubes are so strong that even a car could drive across them. The artwork cost around $18 million (Dhs66,113,031), all paid entirely by the sale of Christo’s artworks. “Christo never takes commissions or sponsorship,” says Jonathan Henery, one of Christo’s project managers for more than 20 years as well as a relative of the artist. “This is a very pure project.”
The teams unfurl 100,000 square metres of shimmering dahlia-yellow fabric on the piers. Photography: Wolfgang Volz, courtesy of Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Still, help was needed in order to pull off such a feat. For years Christo and Jeanne-Claude strove to get authorization to stage the Floating Piers on lakes in countries such as Argentina and Japan. But all their efforts failed. Well-known Italian curator Germano Celant played a principle role in assisting Christo to gain approvals. Another important player was the Beretta family, who own the island of San Paolo just below the larger island of Monte Isola. Owners of the 490-year-old Italian maker of hunting rifles and guns, the Berettas bought the island in 1916 and used it as their summer residence. But due to the logistics of transporting goods on and off the island, the family hasn’t used it much except for dinner parties and gatherings. It was Ms. Berretta, an art lover, who was enthused about the idea of transforming the island into a work of art. They accepted and henceforth helped Christo obtain the necessary documents enabling him to create his art.
The project opened on 18 June and runs for 16 days until 3 July. Each day has witnessed nearly between 50 to 80,000 people flock in herds to Lake Iseo to enjoy the piers. The total number of visitors is expected to reach 1.2 million. Families have arrived picnicking on the beach-like edges of the piers. There are handicaps in wheelchairs, nursing mothers, lovers, men and women from everywhere and anywhere.
The Floating Piers is free of charge and open to all. And while free admission is part of the project’s beauty, it has also caused some problems. Just last week the Italian newspaper Corriera della Sera announced how a man stripped nude and ran across the piers denouncing Christo’s project and the effects it was having on the environment. The police arrested him after he dived off the piers into the water. The artwork, which was meant to stay open 24-hours per day, was closed the second week. Each day the long lines and droves of people have posed challenges to the region’s transport system, so much so that Italian group Codacons accused the artist of wasting taxpayers’ money. But still they come, every single day, crowds of smiling people eager to get their moment on Cristo’s piers.
The crowds of visitors at Christo's Floating Piers. Photography: Wolfgang Volz, courtesy of Christo and Jeanne-Claude
But are people lured to the Floating Piers because of Christo's celebrity status or is it the nature of the artwork itself that drives people to it en masse? There is indeed something about walking on the piers. We left our hotel at 5:45am to get to the artwork early enough to miss the throng of crowds. Surprisingly, they were already there, even as we set foot on the structure at 6:20am. Bouncing slightly with each step, it was like being on a pilgrimage – but in search of what we were not sure. The stunning Dahlia yellow color reminded me of the robes of Buddhist monks. The yellow shade was upbeat, positive, even transcendent. Walking past the dozens of people, all snapping pictures and selfies in an attempt to conserve a personal moment on the piers, it was clear that we were all here for the same reason: to gain an unforgettable memory in an ostentatious man-made structure. Just as Christo says, “Everything makes up the aesthetic.” The experience itself is art.
Christo is now working to complete two unfinished projects conceived by himself and Jeanne-Claude. One is Over the River, an installation hovering above the Arkansas River in south-central Colorado. The other would be situated in the UAE desert. The project is intended for an oasis about 160 km west of Abu Dhabi in the Liwa Oasis in Al Gharbia. Entitled The Mastaba, it was conceived in 1977 and when realized will soar up to 500 feet and consist of 410,000 multicoloured barrels, making it the tallest artwork of Cristo’s career. The name for the project is taken from the Arabic word for an ancient bench-like tomb structure with a trapezoid shape. Having forged a special relationship with the Gulf country since the couple’s first visit in 1979, Christo maintains a close connection to the country and is active in arts education in the UAE. He most recently put his and Jeanne-Claude’s name to one of the most prestigious student art awards in the region. Several of the winning students visited the Floating Piers.
The fabric-covered streets of Sulzano, Italy. Photography: Wolfgang Volz, courtesy of Christo and Jeanne-Claude
As we sped past the island of San Paulo, Christo appeared on deck to the happy onlookers and waved. They saluted him back with shouts of “Grazie! Grazie mille!” “Thank you! Thank you very much!” Handicapped in their wheelchairs, families, romantic couples as well as those who made the trek alone all seemed to have found a patch for themselves on Christo’s golden-coloured floating piers. The power of Christo’s Floating Piers is its indelible experience. For those few moments walking across the piers, one is taking part in history.
Without a doubt, Christo’s latest work is just as controversial as his previous ones. These include wrapping the Pont Neuf in Paris in 1985, covering Germany’s Reichstag in a million square feet of fabric, and a wrapped fountain and medieval tower in Spoleto, Italy in 1968. But isn’t controversy what you get when you implement such a large-scale artwork in the realm of the public? While there will be many who applaud such efforts, there are ultimately many who do not. The Berretta family’s connection with arms manufacturing has been a particularly sore point, especially in light of today’s tumultuous world. On the day we visited the artwork breaking news of the Istanbul airport suicide bombing reminded visitors of the constant threats to individual life. Art, violence and natural beauty – the three do sometimes go hand-in-hand. However, take out the Berretta arms reference and focus on the happiness that has touched close to 1 million people and the Floating Piers is a powerful project. One that does exactly what public art should: Unite us all. – Rebecca Anne Proctor
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Floating Piers on Lake Iseo, Italy, closes on 3 July 2016.
Read more on Christo's Floating Piers and his upcoming project in the UAE in Harper's Bazaar Art's September issue.