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June 2, 2016updated 02 Aug 2016 6:21pm

Meet Christo, the artist on a mission to make man walk on water

By Spear's

Anthony Haden-Guest on why Christo’s most ambitious project, The Floating Piers, although brief, will live on in memory and Art.

Christo-related cartoons covered a wall in the artist’s downstairs loo in Manhattan. ‘Authorities found 100 bales of marijuana floating in Biscayne Bay,’ runs the caption to one in a Florida paper. ‘Must be another of Christo’s wacky art projects.’ That was when he had surrounded a number of islets off Miami with floating pink plastic. In another cartoon a character grumps: ‘Hey, I don’t know anything about art but I know what I don’t like.’ Another observes: ‘I don’t know anything about art, but if it requires a permit from the Corps of Engineers, I don’t like it.’

More cartoons are upstairs. Popular cartoonists love taking a swipe at avant-garde artists, especially hugely successful ones.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, his partner in life and work who died of an aneurysm in 2009, have certainly been that. One striking art world development of recent years has been the emergence of über-artists, namely artists accustomed to the budgets, payrolls and operational complexity required to run a business or make a movie. But long before such über-artists as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor and Zaha Hadid, there were the Christos. Soon after the termination of their Gates project in Central Park, the Harvard Business School published Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Art of the Entrepreneur, a 22-page study. But their goal was always the same: the creation of an intense and unrepeatable art experience.

I met Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1962. They were brought to my studio in the Pheasantry on the King’s Road by Charles Wilp, a German arts entrepreneur, because Christo wanted to wrap a naked woman. Wilp knew that Claude Virgin, the fashion photographer, was my neighbour and fancied I could find a participant. I did. Ruth Ebling, the model, emerged from the see-through plastic, drenched, with a ruined Vidal Sassoon cut, but Wrapped Woman had entered the Christo oeuvre.

I was in Paris soon afterwards and went to see Christo and Jeanne-Claude in their studio/flat on the Ile Saint-Louis, a tiny island in the Seine. I knew some back-story. Christo, a Bulgarian, studied art in Prague and reached the West by stowing away on a
train in 1957. He was at art school in Vienna, then went to Paris, where he put bread on the table by painting portraits, which he hated doing, and signed with his family name: Javacheff. One of his sitters was the mother of Jeanne-Claude. They found that they shared a date of birth (13 June 1935), and soon they shared more. Jeanne-Claude was engaged, but
she was pregnant by Christo when she was married, and she returned to him immediately after the honeymoon. She was estranged for a while from her formidable parents (her mother had fought in the Resistance, her stepfather was a general), but Christo and Jeanne-Claude had one of the strongest unions I have ever known. Christo still speaks of her in the present tense, the ongoing projects being hers also.

Their major projects have almost always been planned for public land, and getting permissions is often arduous and by no means always successful. They had 22 successes — including wrapping a section of Australian coast, the Vittorio Emmanuel monument in Milan, and the Pont Neuf in Paris — and 37 failures, but even the successes can take a huge amount of time to bring off. It took 24 years before the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin was okayed by Mayor Willy Brandt. It took 25 years of refusals before the project for New York’s Central Park, The Gates, was okayed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was a mighty success, and generated $20 million in tourist revenue for the city. Not only are the processes time-consuming, they can also be very costly, and the multi-million-dollar budgets are wholly raised from Christo’s art, both from loans raised on his collection of his
own work and from the sale to collectors of the drawings/collages that the projects

For the last several years the Christos had had two projects on the go at once, one being the The Mastaba, a truncated pyramid constructed from oil drums to be erected in Abu Dhabi, while the other, Over the River, will involve water and light by roofing a stretch of fabric over a length of the Arkansas river popular with rafters — but neither project is whizzing along. Over the River has been approved by the federal authorities, for instance, but is being intransigently sued on the state level.

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‘We are in a terrible, complicated process,’ Christo says. ‘The government is sued by the opposition. This still continues. It is very, very complicated and we are paying so much money — to lawyers, to rents, to the government. Because technically we have permission
for Over the River — we are paying rent to the government of $87,000 a year — but we cannot do it because it is in court. And to keep that permission continuous, to not expire, hoping to do the project, hoping to win, we are paying that rent.’

The Mastaba is likewise progressing sluggishly, so it was Jeanne-Claude who proposed that they focus on a third project, one they could bring off fairly swiftly and economically: The Floating Piers, which would seemingly enable people to walk on water. Christo had originally intended it for the Rio de la Plata in Argentina many years before, then for Tokyo
Bay. No go. The plans had stayed in a drawer. ‘Jeanne-Claude said we have these two projects moving very much ahead,’ Christo says, ‘so probably we can do the Floating Pier, and it will be less expensive. Jeanne-Claude was always optimistic.’ But when the project got moving, Jeanne-Claude was gone.

Her death further underlined that time was a factor. ‘Look, I am 79,’ Christo told his his aides, Vladimir Yavachev, his nephew, and Jonathan Henery, a nephew of Jeanne-Claude. ‘I would like something to be done very fast, in a matter of one and a half or two years.’ He laughed at this ambitiousness but added that it would be cheap, costed at just $15 million. He decided to look for a location in northern Italy. The Christos had done several projects in Italy after moving to Manhattan in 1964. ‘We wrapped the Roman wall of Marcus Aurelius at the end of the Via Veneto in 1974. So now, 40 years after we did the last public project, I am coming back.’

Christo wanted to avoid the sort of challenges that were dogging Over the River, so secrecy was important. ‘In April we always go to Switzerland because our principal storage of works of art is in Basel,’ he says. So they flew to Basel and drove to Italy by way of the San Gothard pass. Christo visited the famous lakes, Como, Garda and Maggiore, but found what he was looking for in a less known body of water. ‘Lake Iseo is something absolutely unique,’ he said. ‘It is a very simple lake, running north/south. And in the middle of that lake there is an island — it is called Monte Isola and it is the tallest island in a lake in the
world. It is 500 metres tall, meaning it is taller than Liberty Tower, because actually it is an Alp. An Alp in the water — can you imagine?’

Another, smaller island was equally important: the Isola di San Paolo. Christo learned that this belonged to the Beretta family, grandees who had been making guns since they had been given the right to do so by a Duke of Venice in the 15th century. He called Germano Celant, the director of the Fondazione Prada and an old friend, who set up a dinner with Franco Beretta and his wife, Umberta. Christo explained the project. ‘We like to do it very quickly,’ he said. ‘We don’t want to wait two years or three years or five years.’ That was last June. In early July, Beretta took them to meet the president of the lake and the two relevant mayors. Approvato! Approvato!

So now they had to figure out how to build the Floating Pier and make it work. ‘For all our projects we always do life-size tests,’ Christo says. ‘For every project — for the Reichstag, everything. How we will do it, exactly how it will look. The Floating Pier should be about sixteen metres wide… three kilometres floating in the water…’ He listed other crucial elements, including 160 five-ton anchors.

Hasn’t he learned from previous projects? No. ‘We never do the same things again,’ he says. ‘It is the most important thing: they are totally unique. It is so exciting because when we do something, I myself don’t know how to do it.’

Where did they do the tests? ‘We were shopping around. But we have a friend, a German count, who has a friend, who has a lake, a little lake on the German-Danish border, and a private forest. And we do the test there. And this is the unbelievable part: you know how we transport 160 anchors to the exact place, underwater, connected to the pier? They are
positioned by air! Floating balloons — the anchors are taken by balloons. Beautiful! Like magic things. No cranes, no anything.’

From there, the operation was moved to a house on the Black Sea. ‘Now we need to build our flagship, a huge barge, for the divers, and the oxygen tanks, all kinds of machinery,’ Christo says. ‘Then we will move to Lake Iseo. And now another beautiful story.’ The
classiest, most luxurious wooden ships in the world end up on Lake Iseo, he says. ‘Ships for all the celebrities. Our flagship will arrive there — it is a 14m-long, 8m-wide barge with motors and with all these rooms for the divers.’ Should fit in like a pea in a pod, right?

The Floating Piers will launch on 18 June. As with each and every Christo project, its existence will be beautiful but brief. ‘It will be there for fifteen days… three weekends,’ he says. Then it will live on in memory. An art.

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