Why Was Christo’s “Walking on Water” Such A Huge Success?

Nélida Nassar   07.12.2016

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Christo’s orange gateways on Lake Iseo in Italy opened on June 18, and by the time they closed only sixteen days later they had attracted more than 1.2 million people to the usually peaceful, verdant mountains of northern Italy and its well known as well as little-known lakes. “People came from all over to walk towards nowhere. Not for shopping, not to meet friends. They just walked to go nowhere,” marveled the American artist of Bulgarian origin, whose full name is Christo Vladimirov Yavachev and who is already famous for having wrapped the Pont Neuf in Paris, the Reichstag in Berlin and installed “Gates” in Central Park, New York.

It’s not the first time Christo has emphasized the contrast between the fluidity of water and the rigidity of materials associated with land. Water played a key role in “Wrapped Coast” in 1969, “Running Fence” in 1976, “Surrounded Islands” in 1983, and “Pont Neuf” in 1985. These earlier projects are described in an anthology edited by Germano Celant, published this April, which includes drawings, sketches and the models exhibited at Brescia’s Santa Giulia Museum.

Visitors came from both the neighboring towns and from much further away, many of them from abroad. They often came barefoot to better feel the water’s movement; some came in wheelchairs, and others brought their dogs. They have come in droves to this unexpected experience promised by Christo: to walk on water. The act of walking is essential to understanding the work. Without warning, one’s balance changes and one has a sense of floating, feeling the movement of the water as a wave motion. It was a little like finding oneself suddenly walking on a water bed. It’s an intimate, tactile project, even sexy in a way. Christo made good on his promise.

He built a two-kilometer-long promenade on the lake shore and an almost three-kilometer-long floating dock, “Floating Piers,” covered with 90,000 square meters of bright yellow-orange polyamide canvas which contrasts starkly and dramatically with the dark blue-green of the lake. The latter structure connected the island of Monte Isola to a tiny private one called San Paolo.

The fabric was sewn into place using specially made sewing machines to create natural folds. Christo warned visitors to step carefully along the platform. His projects are as much feats of engineering as works of art. For this one, he brought in a team of athletes from his native Bulgaria to assemble the specially made cubes, including as well as divers to anchor them to concrete slabs on the lake floor. The 190 anchors were moved into place by hot air balloons.

After disassembly, the 220,000 cubic meters of polyethylene – what supported the canvas – were quickly recycled. The yellow-orange synthetic fabric, of which samples are now sold on eBay, has mostly been melted for reuse. In three months, there will be no trace in the area of Christo’s passage. The project, however, has been registered with the Google Maps street view website.

The work will have marked a great many souls. The organizers were expecting 25,000 to 40,000 visitors a day, but the actual daily attendance was about 72,000 to 100,000, for a total of more than 1.2 million in 16 days. To reduce the waiting lines on the shore, it was often necessary to block the crowd upstream, and to reduce public transport access. Christo promised a unique sensory experience any time of the day or night, but after few days the municipality ordered a midnight to 6 am closing, in large part to make it possible to clean up of Monte Isola.

The artist, who usually finances his projects entirely through the sale of his preparatory drawings, sketches and models, did so again on this occasion. The total budget for the installation of the structure, maintenance, operation and dismantling, garbage collection, and installing of portable toilets amounted to €18 million, and the local governments had to allocate for an additional fee for police, ambulances, firemen, etc.

The economic impact on the region as a whole has appears to be limited; however the hotels, restaurants, bars and shops located on the island reported record business. The challenges Christo aimed to meet were to create a physical experience involving proximity to water; to avoid any form of consumerism; to design a promenade connecting the island of Monte Isola, the highest in Europe – whose population of about 2 thousand inhabitants is dependent on ferry service – to the lake shore; and to use a public space, whether rural or urban, accepting all its aspects, whether banal or extraordinary. This meant involving, inter alia, the ordinary people who live and work in the area. Christo succeeded in making all these physical, ecological, sensorial and spiritual connections, brilliantly weaving many layers together with elegant, minimalistic gestures and lifting our spirits in the process.

Photographs by Wolfgang Volz, hand-drawn technical data, map, fabric sample and tape. Photo: André Grossmann © 2015 Christo