Monday, 11 July 2016

Christo and Jeanne-Claude Floating Piers at Lake Iseo

Lake Iseo with Floating Piers - June 25, 2016

Floating Piers - crowd not accessing smaller island, June 25
In October 2015 I saw an article in the New York Times that the artist Christo was constructing an installation on Lake Iseo in Italy. Having visited several Italian Lakes, but having only a vague idea of where Lake Iseo is, I thought it would be interesting to visit Iseo and see the installation. Now, having been there, and having read a little more about the project, I’m still exploring exactly what this work is about. Christo has said that the process of getting a project approved, designing it, raising the funds, and doing the construction and deconstruction are all part of the work of art. Walking among the crowds, mostly Italian, on the Floating Piers, I thought it only became an art work when people experienced it. Now I’m wondering if my own, and each other viewer’s process of getting there is also part of the work of art. Christo himself said that waiting in line was part ofthe experience, so I imagine he would agree. The anticipation of seeing the installation, the challenge of arranging to be there, both in planning the trip from the United States and getting there from our hotel near the lake, the physical experience of walking to it, walking on it, and finding our way back, plus the drive into the hills so we could see it from above, and even the challenge of finding the museum in Brescia where there was a Christo exhibition could all be part of the work, since all those are what we talk about when we tell people we were there. And they are all part of our experience of the art. Contemporary works of art are not necessarily only ‘things,’ but they can also be experiences and this one engaged us far more than most of the painting and sculpture we saw in the numerous museums we also visited in Europe.
So while our experience started around January, it began to take shape in April, when I was wondering if it was conceivable to include the Floating Piers in a trip to Scandinavia. We were going to Norway and Sweden for two weeks. I found a Ryanair flight from Stockholm to Bergamo, and we could fly from Kansas City to Oslo and back from Milan, so it was possible. But the only hotels in any town I could identify near the project cost between $450 and $4000 a night. We were planning to meet Italian friends there, and I considered just going to Brescia or Bergamo, but I wanted to be at Lake Iseo. Finally I found the Hotel Conca Verde, located in the hills above the lake in a town called Zone, at a very reasonable price. So we booked it. And our friends Tom and Bruna from Padua agreed to meet us there.
On June 23 we flew to Bergamo and rented a car and a GPS. By that time we were hearing that there were 40,000 people a day at Lake Iseo, that the trains weren’t stopping there, and that the roads were blocked. I realized that the installation would be more of an event than I’d anticipated and wondered if people would fall off the pier from the crowding. Following our GPS in the dark, we went through several long tunnels, caught glimpses of the lake below, and snaked up the hill to the hotel, not sure if we were going the right way and only vaguely conscious of the vertiginous drops from the narrow road. The Conca Verde turns out to be in a lovely location with very helpful staff and good food.
The hotel staff told us that 90,000 people a day were visiting and that many had succumbed to the heat and crowd, causing multiple emergency calls. All the roads approaching it were closed, the trains were not stopping at Iseo, and the traffic was at a standstill. Nino at the Conca Verde advised us how we could get to the Christo, by taking a taxi to a ferry stop, taking the boat to Monte Isola, walking three kilometers to the Christo, crossing the lake on the bridge, and having the taxi pick us up at the end. That plan worked. We set out in the morning, but started thinking that we should have waited till the cool of the evening, so Adele, the most accommodating taxi driver, offered to take us back to the hotel and picked us up again at 6.
On the boat we talked with a local man who was making his second visit to the installation. He and his friends were very impressed to hear that it had such international coverage. He was taking his dachshund again because the dog had enjoyed walking on the structure, which he said was kind of like a mattress.
Floating Piers from Monte Isola shore, June 24, 2016
I heard many questions from my companions about how the Christo could be called art, how original it actually is, and what makes it interesting. While there is detailed information about how the piers were constructed, the effect was not very different from a pontoon bridge or, even a large boat. The pier was made up of large plastic cubes connected together, so it undulated with the waves and from the people walking on it. The orange tarps that covered it were wrapped loosely so I kept tripping on the folds, making me walk very carefully.
Floating Piers toward Monte Isola

Floating Piers toward Sulzano
On the pier I was particularly aware of how lovely Lake Iseo is and of the natural beauty of its surrounding hills, as well as of Monte Isola itself, a small island with villages and almost no cars. Sulzano, the town on the mainland, also looked delightful. The crowd on the piers did not seem to be full of art aficionados, but mostly locals and mostly Italians. There were baby carriages and people in wheelchairs, people with pets, families, couples, groups. All of them were smiling.
Lake Iseo, June 24, 2016
     What really struck me was not so much the object itself or the personal experience of “walking on water” as the p.r. put it, but my more comprehensive response. Christo’s art is as much about the process of getting a project designed, approved, and built as the final product and in that sense it is highly conceptual art.  In many cases it takes hundreds or even thousands of people to construct the project, hundreds more to maintain it when it is built, and many again to take it down. The Floating Piers involved many thousands of people, giving pleasure or at least an emotional response to all of them.
Color change where the fabric is wet

Sulzano from Floating Piers, June 24, 2016
Although the drawings for the Floating Piers show only three or four people on them, I think the final product required the people experiencing it: the happy crowds finding their way to this rural location and wandering across the installation, taking pictures of themselves, the pier, and the landscape around, complete the work of art. Like other Christos, the work makes the viewer aware of his surroundings, but also creates a shared experience for a large number of people. I found it joyous, communal, challenging, and thought provoking on a lovely warm evening.
Crowd on Floating Piers, looking toward Sulzano, June 24, 2016

The next day we drove into the hills above the town of Sulzano where the pier starts and caught views of the Christo from above. Each time we found a viewpoint, drivers of other cars and motorcycles were also stopping to look. We passed the huge traffic jam of people coming to find the Christo, wandered into the hills beyond the lake, discovered an amazing restaurant for lunch and found our way back.

Floating Piers, June 25, 2016
 Visually, especially from the hills above, or perhaps from the helicopter that offered rides to see the installation, it’s a minimal form, linear and geometric, variously connecting the mainland to Monte Isola and Monte Isola to a smaller island next to it. It’s a surprise to see the structure from above, marking an orange track on the water. The crowds were barely visible from this distance.
Our friends told us there was an exhibition of Christo’s work in Brescia, so on our last day we went to it, struggling to find the Museo di Santa Giulia in the maze of the medieval part of town. Curated by Germano Celant, it is an extremely well-presented retrospective of Christo and Jean Claude’s work from early Dockside Packages in 1961 and a Wall of Oil Barrels: The Iron Curtain of 1961-62 through wrapping the coast of Australia, the Pont Neuf, the Reichstag, the gorgeous Surrounded Islands  and several lovely projects I had not known, to end with some lobbying for Over the River, the much contested endeavor to hang fabric over the Arkansas River in Colorado. The exhibition included very substantial drawings for each project as well as photographs of the completed work and models for some. The collages are monumental and beautifully drawn. Exhibition labels were very instructive and the catalogue is lovely and useful.

Drawings for Wrapped Coast, One Million Square Feet Little Bay, Sydney, Australia, 1968-1069

Since we returned home, I’ve learned a bit more. Reminded that some of the support for theproject came from the Beretta family, I see that the smaller island at the end of the extension from Monte Isola is owned by that family and a family mansion occupies it. Having seen the exhibition about Christo, with the early installations referring to the Iron Curtain and other political issues, I wonder if he purposely intended that visitors end their walking on water with thoughts about the wealth created by the manufacture of weapons for death. I can say I’ve been thinking about the beauty of the area, the pleasure of the crowds, our own odyssey to get there and the political ramifications of the work since we first arrived.