CultureZohn Off the C(H)uff: Christo And The Floating Piers

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Christo gets on the phone with me on the eve of his departure to Lake Iseo Italy where the construction of his latest herculean water based project, The Floating Piers is already underway, scheduled from June 18-July 3, weather permitting. For the next hour and a half, practically without interruptions for my many questions, Christo expounds on how this project came to be.

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Christo faces the Press at Lake Iseo

Over the years I have encountered Christo and his wife Jeanne Claude and their life's work which has changed the way we see the world by adding temporary structures or constructions as counterpoint to the natural and built environment. Christo makes us see things in a new way, certainly the charge of any great artist.

Now that artists worldwide have embraced the site specific, it's important to remember how extraordinary their contribution to the history of art has been, and in my view, to the uplifting of the human spirit. Yes Christo is a showman, a ringmaster, but in the very best sense of the word. You can't help but be jealous of his enthusiasm and his passion and hope he sprinkles some of his fairy dust, or in this case, the grey waters of Lake Iseo, on you.

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Photo: André Grossmann

Nobody who has passed under the saffron Gates in snowy New York or hiked by the billowing sails of the Running Fence or experienced any of his "wrapped projects" remembers anything but the joy of the moment, the temporary excitement of being part of a grand thing, who they were with, what was happening in their life at the time, the very evanescence making us question our natural instincts for permanence and security. "Each project is like a slice of our life," says Christo.

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When I arrive in the region coming up north from the Milano area, first there is the glimpse of the foothills of the Italian Alps, then gradually the lake comes into view. It is not as large as its sister lakes Como and Garda, but it has a smaller, quieter charm that is very appealing.

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I can suddenly see a yellow ribbon hugging the shoreline. Once I am on the small vaporetto to the site itself it becomes clear that you can't really understand the majestic simplicity of the piers until you are much closer. They surround the ancestral home of the Baretta (gun) family and then from their front door, a yellow road, not made of bricks but of nylon fabric emerges. The Dahlia yellow fabric (Christo insists on this when people say "orange") is dotted with orange footprints and splotches from the rains but it is ruched like a couture dress, and not stretched taut the way I had imagined.

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(Christo says, "in the morning it's almost red, very susceptible to the humidity, like an abstract painting", and indeed I take a photo that resembles a Rothko)

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I thought I would be concerned about falling in but the piers are very wide and slope only at the edges to the water-- "like a beach". The support feels like a Temperpedic mattress, foamy but solid, and two women with spike heels said they had no problem but aside from bringing your ruby slippers, I recommend sneakers. Visitors will be able to walk from Sulzano to Monte Isola and the island of San Paolo.

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I feel joyous and free and connected to the water in a novel way as if I am an amphibian Dorothy come temporarily ashore. Neither on a boat nor swimming, this new way to experience the gentle waves of the lake is not of nature but it is for nature. It reminds of the sixties, the joyous craziness, the doing the thing just for doing it, without worrying about tomorrow.

Of course Christo does worry about tomorrow, about despoiling the environment, about the immense technical planning, about permits, about how to make enough money from prints and drawings (this time there are sixty) and scraps of the elements to make the constructions possible as he is not a non profit. He does not take commissions. He makes his own decisions and generates everything himself with his team. The art is made by his hand alone, "I have no assistants. I do everything myself."

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Germano Celant, curator

The project had a long shelf life as many of his projects have. Some of the projects are site specific: Pont Neuf, Reichstag, Umbrellas. "But others can be adapted, " he explains. The Running Fence was up and down the coast of California until it ended up in Marin. The Floating Piers began as an Argentine pier on the Rio de la Plata , then became a Tokyo Bay pier, and finally now is an Lake Iseo Italian pier. It went through those governments, approvals, denials, trials on a lake in Germany, retrials on the Black Sea in Bulgaria and on the lake itself, collaboration with Germano Celant, the highly regarded curator who works often with the Prada Foundation who greased the wheels with the locals , the ten million dollar loan from Credit Suisse, the creation of a sub-company , many meetings with families on the lake, the President of the Lake and the mayors of the surrounding cities, meetings with lawyers, presentations to government councils, applications for copyright, fabrication in Canada of the floating docks, fabrication in four factories for the Dahlia yellow color nylon, customizing of the 220, 000 cubes and screw pins by Rolls Royce , construction in the US for special underwater connectors, trials of the gradations of the slope of the pier, education of the monitors and guardians, divers and so on. The statistics come at me thick and fast, he remembers each phase, each bolt and screw as if they were the bones of his children, which in fact they are.

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Instead of his long term partner Jeanne Claude with whom he was good cop bad cop, lover, twin, he, the visionary, she the executant (she died in 2009), he had his nephew Vladimir to help as well as a battalion of paid young workers--Christo laughing calls them "Angelo Uno, Angelo Due and Angelo Tre"-- who came from as close as Iseo and as far as Canada, plus an imported Bulgarian soccer team, all of whom work in the signature black t shirts in shifts , the graveyard one acknowledged to be the most grueling since rains have plagued the set up. Celant tells me as we ride the boat towards the piers, "Power plus intelligence, that's all it takes!"

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Christo says, " Jeanne Claude was very critical and argumentative, a great fighter, screamer and arguer. Her energy was crucial." Yet he seems undiminished today. Very tan from days outdoors, in grey Wellies, worn blue jeans and a blue and white striped shirt and a red anorak, Christo faces the press with gusto, his fizzy grey hair like a halo matching the grey-ish skies. Yes, and he also walks on water.

I know there will be comments about the migrants on water not far from here desperately crossing to get to Italy and not having lovely Dahlia yellow fabric to pave their way. To this I can only say that great art has always been counterposed with tragic suffering and the disconnect only serves to remind us of our responsibilities to those without the resources to experience crossing the water as anything but fear and hardship.

There is no admission fee, no openings for the VIPs. "No one owns this work. Everyone owns this work. Ownership is the enemy of passion. Nobody can buy it," says Christo. This populist, anti-aquisitional spirit flies in the face of so much of the contemporary art scene. It's to be relished and commended.

(For those who can't get to Iseo, in a bit of synchronicity, an exhibition at the Parrish Museum in Southampton, Radical Seafaring highlights some other ambitious projects from the NY area that use water as conveyance, metaphor, transport, for ideas and people alike. Water is now a precious resource, as precious as its cargo, and Andrea Grover, the curator has done yeoman work in collecting so many things that will make you smile (floating cinemas, performances, unmanned drones, contraband, debris, mobile Gyn clinics (love this idea) playgrounds, migrant vessels, decoys, barges, floating cities, Smithson floating island around Manhattan, I was lucky enough to see this treat) musical accompaniment et al)

Do take a look at Christo's website which has wonderful images and an excellent history of the project, and the work in progress.

A companion exhibition of all of Christo's water projects is at the Museo di Santa Giulia in nearby Bresica until September.

You can see my other suggestions for visits to this region here.