In 1992, the artist, Christo, with his now late-wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, had a vision to suspend miles of silvery translucent fabric over the Arkansas River in Colorado. Would you expect anything less?
Christo usually works at such massive geographic scales—land interventions that can be discerned by satellites passing overhead. Here his ambition stretches for 42 miles (67.6 km) of scenic river with no less than a total of 5.9 miles (9.5 km) of fabric suspended over the eight different sections of the river.
Since conception, the project has faced numerous hurdles including opposition from local residents who contend that the work that would have to go into realizing these silvery sails in such a remote location would do damage to the environment. Christ’s team of engineers claims they have anticipated the potential impact the construction would cause and have, according to a recent Huffington Post article, put in place “dozens of measures to mitigate impacts.”
For Christo, all of the political back and forth, the lawsuits, the public debate, the need to negotiate with any opposition and involve the communities where his works are based, are part of the art itself. The end result, in this case silvery fabric suspended over the river, will—if it indeed becomes realized—embody a long and complicated civic engagement not unlike those enacted for urban development proposals. It seems so obviously and pointedly ironic—perhaps intentionally?—that the art that results from such civic and legal force is ultimately diaphanous, billowy, delicate, even. That it takes a sort of ruthless drive and cunning to erect something so delicate often gets overlooked. Christo could have been a wildly successful developer had he so chosen to employ his talents for marshaling power to bear on the landscape. By now, apart from being a grand visionary, he has become a seasoned politician. I imagine Christo is a chess player of some skill.
As part of his campaign to bring Over the River to life, he has established a sophisticated political machine in the form of a website that features all the project details, including all the Environmental Impact Reports and mitigation strategies. Of course the most powerful arguments for the project are the economic benefits it will bring to this corner of the state of Colorado, all deftly and convincingly laid out for the citizens of that great state. Christo’s greatest achievement with such works is the formation of political consensus and the ability to mobilize political bodies along with grass-roots support. To glance at the list of supporting organizations one would think opposition would be impossible. But the democratic process does not work that way.
Now, more than ten years after they conceived of Over the River, the project is inching closer to being realized, although in fits and starts. One of his major opponents, a group sneeringly calling itself Rags Over the Arkansas River is still fighting the Bureau of Land Management permit that allowed the work to commence and Christo finds himself in and out of courtrooms as he tries to make the original opening of 2016.
All this work for a mere two-week installation. It seems fleeting and even somehow frivolous. It terms of the environment it becomes a part of, Over the River will be but a blink, an inhale and exhale. It will be gone before it even has a chance to determine or alter anything related to the eternal river. But it will persist in memory and in Christo’s numerous process drawings, and quite possibly in a few satellite photographs. Such documents will stretch the project into its own river of time.
The temporal nature of Christo’s work seems as much a commentary on and critique of human ambitions to alter the physical environment. I wonder if his biographers will see him as a great satirist, a comedian of sorts, who makes of the world a funhouse ride, a Coney Island marvel in which we can laugh at our grand plans and schemes. Though we erect temples to last well beyond two years they are still but blinks.