Walking on water with Christo

8 Jul

Christo’s art is “wrapping” things–buildings, coast lines, monuments, and more. In 1969, he wrapped the two-story Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and its lower-level gallery. My wife and I and our three daughters (ages 8, 6, 2) accepted the invitation to lie on the floor wrapped in canvas and roll around on it. We connected with this work of art. We’ve followed him ever since. You can see this at: http://christojeanneclaude.net/projects/wrapped-museum-of-contemporary-art-and-wrapped-floor-and-stairway.

On June 18, almost fifty years later, people walked on Christo’s monumental installation on Iseo Lake, 60 miles from Milan, Italy. Some 200,000 floating cubes create a runway nearly two miles long, connecting the village of Sulzano to the small island of Monte Isola on the lake, for a 16-day outdoor installation–entitled “Floating Piers.” See the photo above.

For me, the brilliance of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude (the art is a collaboration until her death in 2009) is the way they bring earthiness and transcendence together. What’s earthier than rolling around on a canvas covered floor? You feel the floor. You “see” the work of art with your whole body. The artists deny any deeper meaning to their work. They simply create for joy and beauty and offer new ways of seeing. But at the Museum, it wasn’t just a floor–it was a work of art. Artists invited us to roll on their creation! Ever after, I realized that a museum is not just a place where we view art; the museum can itself be a work of art. The total experience transcends the act of viewing a canvas-covered floor, but the transcendence requires the rolling, the participation. And the 2 year-old participated as much as 40 year-old adults.

Art critic David Bourdon says that Christo’s wrappings are “revelation through concealment.” We have to discover what things really are–first encounters are not enough. Scientists know this very well. Meticulous, time-consuming experiments and observations pry open natural phenomena. Poets and novelists say the same thing: that they have to twist and squeeze words to discover their possibilities. Ursula Le Guin speaks of words as stones that the poet must chip away at in order to crack open their meaning.

When was the last time that you examined a building by physically rolling on its basement floor? Christo talks about the people walking on his floating piers–they will experience the actual surface of the lake, walking on the cubes as they float with the movements of the water. They are discovering the water.

Just as the canvas reveals the museum floor, though it appears to cover it up, the floating piers do not cover the water so much as reveal the water in ways quite different than it is revealed in swimming or by walking over it on a pier or a bridge.

Christo speaks of the art as a journey. “The journey is the work of art. And the most beautiful part of the floating pier is to see that the entire project is about the people walking nowhere. About the feeling of the surface of the land or the water. And your feet actually–many people walk barefoot. And they walk, they walk. It’s not like going to shop, not going to see your friends. It’s going really nowhere.”

In that nowhere the revelation takes place. Religion often works in this same way. When you get right down to it, there is no “nowhere” for Christo. Artistic experience can be everywhere–even on basement floors. Religions know as well that there is no fundamental “nowhere.” Martin Luther, who stands tall in my tradition, taught that God is both hidden (“absconditus” in Latin, the absconded God) and revealed. But God only seems to be “hidden”–God is actually present everywhere, but in ways we do not see at first–we must discover the presence of God.

Discovery is tactile, hands-on. We are familiar with the mental aspects of experiencing the world, the “thinking.” Art is material–pigments put on a canvas, metal shaped in a forge, meaning and beauty painstakingly pried from words. Religion is the same. Deeds, interactions with other people, our own inner emotional life, goodness and evil, faithfulness and betrayal, the lust for power, self-sacrifice and selfishness–these are the concrete materials of everyday life, and also the stuff of religion.

The stuff of the world–whether it’s color, bronze, or emotions–does not bend easily to our dreams. There’s a give-and-take required. Christo and Jeanne-Claude engage the world of buildings and bridges, as well as rivers, coastlines, lakes and canyons. Those who come to the art are part of the give-and take–they’re rolling on floors and walking on water.

If you’re very lucky, you can check out a Christo near you–sometime. In the meantime, travel by Google:




Christo and Jeanne Claude: Prints and Objects. Edited by Joerg Schellmann. New York: The Outlook Press.

(c) Phil Hefner. 7/8/2016

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