CULTURE & ARTS

An Art Project Over 40 Years In The Making Lets People Walk On Water

For Christo and Jeanne-Claude, art and magic are interchangeable.
The Floating Piers, Lake Iseo, Italy, 2014-2016.
The Floating Piers, Lake Iseo, Italy, 2014-2016.

In fairy tales past and present, magic is something that happens in a flash -- with the flick of a wand, an "abracadabra" or a "bippity boppity boo." With his latest piece, "The Floating Piers," 81-year-old artist Christo proves magic isn't just a thing of fairy tales. It exists in real life. But it doesn't come with the blink of an eye. It comes after years of careful planning and hard work. And millions of dollars.

The story of "The Floating Piers" began 46 years ago, when Christo and his late wife and fellow artist Jeanne-Claude were approached by an Argentine art historian to build a floating bridge atop South America's Río de la Plata, realizing the artists' dream of walking on water. Jeanne-Claude died in 2009 from complications resulting from a brain aneurysm, but Christo was determined to make their shared vision a reality.

The Floating Piers, Lake Iseo, Italy, 2014-2016.
The Floating Piers, Lake Iseo, Italy, 2014-2016.

For years, Christo and Jeanne-Claude devoted their lives to bringing free, accessible artworks to the public -- artworks whose sole purpose is to enchant the viewer, without a deeper meaning or implication. Today, Christo's works continue to take the shape of massive, ephemeral installations that transform the natural landscape for a brief while.

Over the course of his career, he's wrapped an Australian coast in synthetic fabric, stretched a curtain across a Rocky Mountain valley, and encased a Parisian bridge in sand-colored cloth. For the duo's most recent work together, "The Gates," completed in 2005, Christo and Jeanne Claude installed 7,500 saffron-paneled gates in New York's Central Park, a project over 30 years in the making. 

"I know these projects are totally irrational, totally useless," Christo told The New York Times. "The world can live without them, nobody needs them, only me and Jeanne-Claude. She always made the point that they exist because we like to have them, and if others like them, it’s only a bonus."

Artist Christo attends the presentation of his installation the "The Floating Piers" on Jun. 16, 2016, in Sulzano, Italy.
Artist Christo attends the presentation of his installation the "The Floating Piers" on Jun. 16, 2016, in Sulzano, Italy.

Although the seed of "The Floating Piers" was planted over 40 years ago, the project was realized in only 22 months, a record for the artists whose works are known to take decades to make. Throughout the spring and summer of 2014, Christo hunted for the body of water he wished to traverse, selecting Italy's Lake Iseo as the most rousing site. 

For two weeks only, the lake will be dressed up with a 1.8-mile walkway, measuring 53 feet across. The triangular dock's foundation is made from 200,000 floating, high-density polyethylene cubes, covered in 100,000 square meters of dahlia-colored fabric, waterproof and stain resistant, shimmering and rippling. The bridge stretches from the Italian mainland to two small islands, Monte Isola and San Paolo, allowing visitors to walk to both as well as between the two. 

The piece cost approximately $16.8 million dollars and was funded entirely through the sale of Christo's original drawings and collages. 

People walk on the installation "The Floating Piers" on the Iseo Lake by the Bulgarian artist Christo on Jun. 18, 2016, in Is
People walk on the installation "The Floating Piers" on the Iseo Lake by the Bulgarian artist Christo on Jun. 18, 2016, in Iseo, Italy.

"It’s actually very painterly, like an abstract painting," Christo told The New York Times, "but it will change all the time." The massive walkway, like a constantly undulating golden quilt, is designed to shift according to weather and time of day. Like a massive mood ring, the work reflects its environment, becoming warmer or paler, speckled or glassy, depending on each viewer's particular experience. The texture, too, is constantly in flux -- sometimes wet and squishy, other times soft and warm. Walking barefoot is encouraged. 

The piece opened to the public on Saturday, Jun. 18, and will exist until Jul. 3. On each of those 16 brief-yet-wondrous days, approximately 40,000 visitors will experience the supernatural sensation of walking on water, moving in harmony with the soft rhythm of the lake below. 

Yet again, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have proved that, at its best, art is interchangeable with magic, and most anything we imagine can become a reality. But it's not just a matter of a magic word or a poof of smoke -- such an achievement takes years of planning and millions of dollars, not to mention the help of engineers, construction companies, deep-sea divers and boat hands. Lifeguards will be on hand in case any overexcited viewers amble right off the floating walkway. There are no handrails, because where's the magic in that? 

  • The Floating Piers, Lake Iseo, Italy, 2014-16.
    Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2016 Christo
    The Floating Piers, Lake Iseo, Italy, 2014-16.
  • The Floating Piers, Lake Iseo, Italy, 2014-16. 
    Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2016 Christo
    The Floating Piers, Lake Iseo, Italy, 2014-16. 
  • From the evening of June 15 to the evening of June 17, teams unfurl 100,000 square meters of shimmering dahlia-yellow fabric
    Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2016 Christo
    From the evening of June 15 to the evening of June 17, teams unfurl 100,000 square meters of shimmering dahlia-yellow fabric on the piers and pedestrian streets in Sulzano and Peschiera Maraglio.
  • From the evening of June 15 to the evening of June 17, teams unfurl 100,000 square meters of shimmering dahlia-yellow fabric
    Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2016 Christo
    From the evening of June 15 to the evening of June 17, teams unfurl 100,000 square meters of shimmering dahlia-yellow fabric on the piers and pedestrian streets in Sulzano and Peschiera Maraglio.
  • From the evening of June 15 to the evening of June 17, teams unfurl 100,000 square meters of shimmering dahlia-yellow fabric
    Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2016 Christo
    From the evening of June 15 to the evening of June 17, teams unfurl 100,000 square meters of shimmering dahlia-yellow fabric on the piers and pedestrian streets in Sulzano and Peschiera Maraglio. 
  • People walk on the installation "The Floating Piers" on the Iseo Lake by the Bulgarian artist Christo Vladimirov Yavachev, kn
    Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images
    People walk on the installation "The Floating Piers" on the Iseo Lake by the Bulgarian artist Christo Vladimirov Yavachev, known as Christo, on June 18, 2016 in Iseo, Italy.
  • People walk on the installation "The Floating Piers" on the Iseo Lake by the Bulgarian artist Christo Vladimirov Yavachev, kn
    People walk on the installation "The Floating Piers" on the Iseo Lake by the Bulgarian artist Christo Vladimirov Yavachev, known as Christo, on June 18, 2016 in Iseo, Italy.
  • People walk on the installation "The Floating Piers" on the Iseo Lake by the Bulgarian artist Christo Vladimirov Yavachev, kn
    Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
    People walk on the installation "The Floating Piers" on the Iseo Lake by the Bulgarian artist Christo Vladimirov Yavachev, known as Christo, on June 18, 2016 in Sulzano Village of Iseo Town, Brescia, Italy. Approximately 200,000 floating cubes were placed on the lake to make a runway connecting the village of Sulzano to the small island of Monte Isola on the Iseo Lake.
  • People walk on the installation "The Floating Piers" on the Iseo Lake by the Bulgarian artist Christo Vladimirov Yavachev, kn
    Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images
    People walk on the installation "The Floating Piers" on the Iseo Lake by the Bulgarian artist Christo Vladimirov Yavachev, known as Christo, on June 18, 2016 in Iseo, Italy.
  • A view of the installation "The Floating Piers" on the Iseo Lake by the Bulgarian artist Christo Vladimirov Yavachev. known a
    Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images
    A view of the installation "The Floating Piers" on the Iseo Lake by the Bulgarian artist Christo Vladimirov Yavachev. known as Christo, on June 18, 2016 in Iseo, Italy.
  • A view of the installation "The Floating Piers" on the Iseo Lake by the Bulgarian artist Christo Vladimirov Yavachev. known a
    Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images
    A view of the installation "The Floating Piers" on the Iseo Lake by the Bulgarian artist Christo Vladimirov Yavachev. known as Christo, on June 18, 2016 in Iseo, Italy.
  • A view of the installation "The Floating Piers" on the Iseo Lake by the Bulgarian artist Christo Vladimirov Yavachev. known a
    Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images
    A view of the installation "The Floating Piers" on the Iseo Lake by the Bulgarian artist Christo Vladimirov Yavachev. known as Christo, on June 18, 2016 in Iseo, Italy.
  • From the evening of June 15 to the evening of June 17, teams unfurl 100,000 square meters of shimmering dahlia-yellow fabric
    Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2016 Christo
    From the evening of June 15 to the evening of June 17, teams unfurl 100,000 square meters of shimmering dahlia-yellow fabric on the piers and pedestrian streets in Sulzano and Peschiera Maraglio.
  • Christo is watching a diver hooking a fabric panel to the side of a floating pier on June 15, 2016.
    Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2016 Christo
    Christo is watching a diver hooking a fabric panel to the side of a floating pier on June 15, 2016.
  • Workers sew together two fabric panels with a portable sewing machine on June 15, 2016.
    Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2016 Christo
    Workers sew together two fabric panels with a portable sewing machine on June 15, 2016.
  • The felt that will cover the cubes underneath the yellow fabric is transported from Montecolino to San Paolo island by Elimas
    Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2016 Christo
    The felt that will cover the cubes underneath the yellow fabric is transported from Montecolino to San Paolo island by Elimast Helicopter Service, May 2016.
  • At a factory in Fondotoce at Lago Maggiore, 200,000 high-density polyethylene cubes are manufactured over a period of eight m
    Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2016 Christo
    At a factory in Fondotoce at Lago Maggiore, 200,000 high-density polyethylene cubes are manufactured over a period of eight months before delivery to the work site in Montecolino, January 2016.
  • At a factory in Fondotoce at Lago Maggiore, 200,000 high-density polyethylene cubes are manufactured over a period of eight m
    Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2016 Christo
    At a factory in Fondotoce at Lago Maggiore, 200,000 high-density polyethylene cubes are manufactured over a period of eight months before delivery to project work site in Montecolino, January 2016. 
  • During the life-size test at Montecolino, Christo is obviously delighted as the piers undulate with the movement of the waves
    Photo: Wolfgang Volz
    During the life-size test at Montecolino, Christo is obviously delighted as the piers undulate with the movement of the waves, Lake Iseo, October 2015.
  • Lake Iseo with the town of Sulzano in the foreground, the island of Monte Isola on the right and the island of San Paolo on t
    Photo: Wolfgang Volz
    Lake Iseo with the town of Sulzano in the foreground, the island of Monte Isola on the right and the island of San Paolo on the left.

CORRECTION: Due to an error in Getty Images, the date on which visitors toured "The Floating Piers" was incorrectly stated as June 8. The photo captions have since been corrected.

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