As far as birthday blowouts go, the festivities involved with turning 81 tend to be, well, mild: An extended golf sojourn to Palm Springs, an early-bird dinner with a third glass of Chardonnay or a matinee with one's sweetie are usually par for the course.
But if your name happens to be Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, ringing in your second year as an octogenarian might involve putting the final touches on a fabric-clad floating modular walkway composed of 220,000 high-density polyethylene cubes that stretches across a stunning, mountain-framed lake in northern Italy.
June 13 marked the 81st birthday of Christo, the internationally acclaimed — and frequently controversy-embroiled — artist-provocateur best known for mounting huge installations that frequently involve wrapping familiar manmade structures and natural landscapes (Berlin’s Reichstag, the Pont-Neuf in Paris, the footpaths of a park in Kansas City, a huge swath of the Australian coastline, etc.) in fabric.
June 13 also marks the 81st birthday of Jeanne-Claude, Bulgaria-born Christo’s flame-haired wife/collaborator/partner in crime who died after suffering a brain aneurysm in November 2009 at the age of 74.
Despite Jeanne-Claude’s passing, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, as a single artistic entity, are very much alive and well.
“The Floating Piers,” the duo’s 23rd large-scale project and the first to be realized since “The Gates” invaded Central Park in 2005, is set to open to the public on June 18 at Lake Iseo in Italy's Lombardy region.
The fleeting work of environmental art, which will be accessible (weather permitting) for just 16 short days before being deconstructed and recycled, centers around a nearly 2-mile-long buoyant footpath that juts out over Lake Iseo, linking the mainland town of Sulzano with Peschiera Maraglio, a quaint outpost located on the island of Monte Isola. The pontoon-y promenade also completely encircles the tiny private island of San Paolo. And because a work by Christo and Jeanne-Claude wouldn’t be complete without wrapping, draping or completely covering something in colored textiles, this gently bobbing “modular floating dock system” that allows emboldened visitors to really, truly walk on water will be gussied up with over 1 million square feet of resplendent saffron-hued fabric.
The polyethylene piers themselves are 52-feet-wide and a little over a foot high with reassuring, sloping sides.
An artistic rendering of "The Floating Piers" by Christo. Constructed from polyethylene cubes moored to the bottom of Lake Iseo, the walkway connects the Italian mainland with two islands. (Photo: André Grossmann /© 2015 Christo)
Essentially, “The Floating Piers,” the first Christo and Jeanne-Claude project to be mounted in Italy in over four decades, can be viewed as a sort of stunningly sited mash-up of past installations including the aforementioned “Wrapped Walkways” project in Kansas City (1977-1978) and 1983’s stupendously pink “Surrounded Islands” in Miami’s Biscayne Bay.
In fact, the idea for a water-bound walkway has been kicking around since 1970 when the duo dreamt up a similar concept for the Rio de la Plata, the massive river estuary that separates Argentina and Uruguay. In 1995, the idea, ahem, floated up again with a fabric-clad pier proposal for Tokyo Bay. Like with the Argentina project, that never came to fruition due to bureaucratic red tape.
Several decades and $17 million later on a remote, crystalline lake in Lombardy (“northern Italy’s least-known big lake,” as the Associated Press puts it) Christo has finally achieved “walk on water” status.
A 16-day run seems painfully brief for a landscape-altering art installation-cum-tourist attraction that’s been under construction since November of last year. But like with most Christo and Jeanne-Claude projects, the ephemeral nature of “Floating Piers” plays into its magical allure. If “The Floating Piers” were to be intact for a month or more and be allowed to establish some sort of permanence on Lake Iseo, the transitory specialness of it all would be negated. And after all, Christo wouldn’t want the 2,000 residents of Monte Isola to get too used to casually strolling across the lake to the Italian mainland in lieu of taking a boat.
In addition to the normally boat-reliant residents of Monte Isola, “The Floating Piers” is expected to attract roughly a half-million visitors during its run. As the AP explains, that figure is somewhat on the low end for a major Christo and Jeanne-Claude installation due largely to Lake Iseo’s far-flung locale near the Swiss border, about a 2-hour drive northeast of Milan. By comparison, “The Gates,” which ran for 15 days in the heart of New York City, attracted 2 million visitors.
Christo has described the experience of walking along a pontoon-boulevard, moored to the bottom of the alpine lake by a series of concrete anchors installed by a team of French commercial divers, as akin to “walking on the back of a whale.”
While potentially nauseating depending on wind conditions (a creamy, risotto-based lunch is probably best avoided before embarking on a stroll), “Floating Piers” is indeed completely safe. If conditions take a turn for the stormy and the lake itself gets whipped up into a frenzy, the installation will temporarily close.
In fact, 150 volunteers, lifeguards included, will be stationed along the route in boats and along the walkway to ensure that no one goes toppling into the vibrant blue waters by accident. As the AP notes, “swimming is forbidden — but expected.”
And like with previous Christo and Jeanne-Claude installations, the self-financed “Floating Piers” is sans ticketing and admission fees.
What's more, the installation will be fully accessible 24 hours a day so that visitors and locals alike can enjoy nighttime constitutionals on the lake.
Explains the project website:
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s goal has always been to create works of art of joy and beauty, without charging any viewing fees. Thus, no tickets will be necessary to see, enter and enjoy The Floating Piers. The project will be completely free of charge.
There will also be no official grand opening —“The Floating Piers” just kind of happens. And then, just like that, it disappears.
Muses Christo: “I don't like to talk on the telephone, I like to see the real people. And of course I don't understand anything of computers. I like to have the real things, the real water, the real sun, the real kilometer, the real wind, the real fear, the real joy.”
On that note, Christo also recommends applying real sunscreen before venturing out along “The Floating Piers.”
Are the lakes of northern Italy very much not in your travel plans this month but down with the idea of sauntering across a pop-up floating walkway installed across another body of water?
If all goes as planned, Citizen Bridge, artist Nancy Nowacek’s successfully crowdfunded floating pedestrian bridge proposal that would span New York City’s Buttermilk Channel connecting Red Hook, Brooklyn, with Governors Island, will take form in the near future for a really brief — like 24 hours brief — run during the summer of 2017.
Although a different buoyant beast than “The Floating Piers,” this super-temporary floating footbridge would be realized in my immediate backyard (seriously, I'd have a front-row view out my living room window) and provide greater, however short-lived, access to one of my favorite places in New York City: the accessible by ferry-only Governors Island.
As Nowacek explains, the project "aims to reconnect New Yorkers to their waterways, reclaim the waterfront step by step, helping New Yorkers gain agency over their bodies in relation to the water, a necessity in the new reality of living in a sinking city."
Inset photos: Wolfgang Volz