Walking on water

20150503-Christo imageIN 1983 Christo surrounded 11 islands in Biscayne Bay, off Miami, with 600,000 square metres (6.5m square feet) of luminous pink fabric. The installation, called “Surrounded Islands”, was completely removed after two weeks. On one morning of its brief existence an elderly woman entered the project’s main office. She was livid. “It looks like you’ve emptied a bottle of Pepto-Bismol into the bay!” she raged. That afternoon an elderly man walked in and asked who was responsible for the project. After the morning’s experience Christo was nervous, but still introduced himself. “It’s fantastic,” the man said. “It looks like you’ve emptied a bottle of Pepto-Bismol into the bay!”

Christo, born Christo Javacheff in Bulgaria, delights in the story. He marvels at art’s ability to provoke such emotion and at how perceptions can differ so markedly. He hopes his latest project, “The Floating Piers, which is planned for a 16-day stint next summer, on Lake Iseo in northern Italy, will stir similar passions.

“The Floating Piers” will be a series of golden walkways connecting Sulzano on the mainland to the islands of Monte Isola and San Paolo. Christo says his intention is to create a beautiful, temporary work of art. Temporariness is important to him, he says, for containing an aesthetic quality he calls the “presence of the missing”.

The project will be Christo’s first big work for ten years, and the first since the death of his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude in 2009. Built of 200,000 specially designed polyethylene cubes normally used in the yachting industry for pontoons, the 16 metre-wide piers will float on the lake. Fastened to the lake floor every 50m, with anchors up to 90m deep and some weighing 7 tons, it is an ambitious vision. Sloping, unfenced sides will allow boats to ride up onto the piers so promenaders can alight. The cubes will be covered with 70,000 square metres of fabric: three kilometres of yellow road will move on the water; another 1.5km will flow through the tight pedestrian streets in Sulzano and Peschiera Maraglio. The contrast of the gentle fluidity on the water and the sturdy presence of the land will be sexy, says the artist.

The project is expected to cost $10m, which Christo will fund through the sales of sketches of the plans, scale models and past works. He does not balk at the cost. “These projects are our children,” he says. “Do you have a budget for your children?” He refuses commissions and sponsorship so as to remain in control.

A Harvard Business School report from 2006, looking at the way Christo and Jeanne-Claude fund their work, cited “illiquidity, uncertain valuations and faddishness” as reasons banks often avoid lending for arts. For “The Gates” (2005), which went up in New York’s Central Park, Bank Leu, then a subsidiary of Credit Suisse, provided Christo with a credit facility of $10m, and held $60m-worth of his works as collateral. In return, Christo paid an annual fee of $10,000, 1% of the unused credit, and 1% plus LIBOR (the rate banks charge for lending to other banks) of the credit used. Such a business model is rarely seen in the art world, but its unconventionality was in keeping with the work. And it certainly delivered: the estimated 4m visitors who saw “The Gates” brought in around $250m for New York City. It is a lesson not lost on the Italian government.

It took only a year to get permission for “The Floating Piers”; some of Christo’s projects have needed decades. “Wrapped Reichstag” (1995), which covered the German parliament building in silver fabric for two weeks, took 24 years to come to fruition. It was only made possible when the-then Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, horrified at the concept, put the decision to a vote in the Reichstag. He lost.

Operating at a scale that will inevitably draw opposition from some aggrieved party, political or otherwise, is one thing. To do it repeatedly, viewing the conflict and frustration as part of the art, invites the suggestion that Christo actually enjoys the confrontation. He denies it. But when asked about Jeanne-Claude, he says she was “a ferocious critic, and I miss this all the time.”

This article was commissioned by The Economist


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