Christo (Without Jeanne-Claude) is still 'Walking on Water'

Andrey Paounov's latest film puts us behind the scenes and in front of a Christo and Jeanne-Claude installation.

Christo in Walking on Water

The work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude may be familiar to you, or it may not. Today’s visual artists are not quite the household names that Delacroix and Courbet were, though it’s worth noting that Christo and Jeanne-Claude were once the focus of a deeply reverent homage packed at the end of a forgotten episode from the 10th season of The Simpsons.

At the time, Christo and Jeanne-Claude had made the headlines in the first decade after the end of the Cold War with stunt pieces such as the wrapping of the Reichstag of a recently reunified Germany in a million square feet of aluminum-colored fabric (“Wrapped Reichstag”). They also made headlines when a woman was crushed to death by a flying yellow umbrella that had drifted away from the set-up of another of their works, “The Umbrellas” (of this, Homer Simpson remarks: “Killer umbrellas? Of course!”).

In 2009, Jeanne-Claude passed away herself, though Christo has continued to work under their collective name, as all of the projects he has worked on since her death were conceived by both of them.

Scale was never the aim of their works so much as its canvas, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s installations grew constantly in size and ambition along with their fame, but each was eventually dismantled and its materials recycled, a metaphor for our own transience and how nothing money can buy will outlive us. And yet.

These installations cost millions of dollars to make and represent in very literal terms what alienates most people from the downtowns of art people. When the K Foundation publicly set £1,000,000 on fire as an art project in the mid-‘90s, it was in protest of something that, even if vague, at least had a manifesto. When Christo and Jeanne-Claude orchestrated the installation of 7,000 orange flags in Central Park a decade later, Michael Bloomberg was on hand to give a speech next to the first one.

Socialists and cultural warriors alike can come together to critique these fabulations of neoliberal capital. The deliberate impermanence of their work toys existentially with the idea of artistic enterprise as a moral or social good. More than anyone since Duchamp, Christo and Jeanne-Claude pose the question. Art! What is it good for?

One of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s works, the site-specific 2016 installation The Floating Piers, is the subject of Walking on Water, the latest film by Andrey Paounov, who is himself one the most explosively comic documentarians working today.

Paounov has spent much of his this energy covering the small and large foibles of his countrymen in Bulgaria. In his last picture, The Boy Who Was a King, Paounov told the rich fable of Simeon II, Bulgaria’s last king and 48th Prime Minister who was exiled shortly after taking the throne and returned 50 years later to be democratically elected to its highest office. After using the position to restore much of what his family lost under communism, he is voted out of office by an angry public.

A chronologically ambitious film, The Boy Who Was a King turns an abbreviated history of postwar Bulgaria into a tale rich with historical drama but maintaining a subtle line that carries inside it a comedy about human nature and the vicious cycle that churns between idealism and cynicism. Paounov’s own stance is whimsical and feels at one with the ambivalence and the vérité of the geographically nearby work of Corneliu Porumboiu and others of last decade’s Romanian New Wave.

This is not the first time that Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work has been given a kind of permanence by film either—notably, no pair less than Albert and David Maysles of Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens fame shot some five half-hour to hour-long adoring films on some of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s early installations. In those movies—one of which, Christo’s Valley Curtain, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short—man-on the-street testification is required to establish the visual value behind what Christo and Jeanne-Claude do.

Paounov is less concerned with this and relishes, instead, in the absurdity attached to any large construction project, doubled only by its purity of its aesthetic goals. The comedy makes these seem less like art projects being made on the scale of gods and more akin to the construction of office buildings.

Paounov chooses also not to embellish Christo’s history. Jeanne-Claude’s death is mentioned precisely once, by Paounov in the opening cards. But we don’t get the feeling that Christo has forgotten the love of his creative and romantic life. His way is silence and plowing ahead. “I don’t like to spend one moment of my life looking backward,” Christo once told Esquire, who were perhaps hoping for more retrospection from the artist in his early eighties.

Paounov has a deep respect for this, instead, and follows him quietly as Christo installs The Floating Piers. It is a large construction of yellow fabric that is eventually situated over Lake Iseo in Italy for a little over two weeks. Held up by high-density blocks of polyethylene, the installation allows people to walk over it and enjoy the sensation of walking on water.

The process of designing The Floating Piers began in 1970, which is when they date the occurrence of the idea, though permission was sought first of more historically or commercially significant pools of water like the Río de la Plata and Tokyo Bay. Paounov picks things up when Christo has decided on Lake Iseo and has begun the extensive process of securing permission from local political authorities and starts gathering funds for the project.

Art is big business, but Christo doesn’t engage in most of it. He is not represented by a gallery and instead begins creating work to sell whenever he is in need of funds to begin a new project. Often this work involves, as it does here, artistic representations and plans that are being made for a project whose sale it will fund. There is something quaint and beautiful about this, a sensation often evoked by Christo and Jeanne-Claude’ work.

This is also a utopian model inside a world that is not. Paounov does not fault him for this. He captures Christo selling the art pieces himself and glad-handing local Italian politicians. Like the manager of a street carnival sitting politely through a community board meeting, Christo nervously frets and studies the names of each of these small-time politicians and treats them like his patrons.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work has never been made possible by public funds or sponsorship grants, but it can easily be squashed by an unhappy community organizer. This part of Christo’s struggle Paounov finds both nervously arresting and a comic foible, as we hear Christo repeat the same pitch to vaguely confused middle-aged men in ill-fitting suits who collectively reminded me of nothing less than the small business owners being pitched on Nathan for You.

In the beginning, we are told that 47 of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects have suffered rejection by these hands. Christo’s persistence has human dignity, a man fighting the elements to paint his canvas. It recalls the noble and small struggles often at the center of Porumboiu’s early films, stern old people who lift their nose up in order to continue living by their way. 

But the film that Walking on Water most recalls is Darren Aronofsky’s mother!. In Aronofsky’s latest dispatch of metaphors, a poet (Javier Bardem) writes a very popular poem and his life descends into chaos as hundreds if not thousands of people want to experience his creation.

When The Floating Piers is first open to the public, buses immediately arrive carrying thousands. Paounov captures a crisis when police warn Christo and his company that 100,000 people are expected to show up in the course of a single day. By the time The Floating Piers is closed down, over a million people have visited it in the course of some 16 days.

The sight of the million people, eager to consume his art, doesn’t bring Christo joy. He frets about the specifics and is outraged by local politicians who have not done enough to safely manage their town and by local merchants who are sneaking visitors in, to sell them wares while they wait in line.

Despite years of planning, his math didn’t factor these slight adjustments in. Most people who create art want to make words so they can organize them. You will either go small or go large in the aid of meticulously constructing such sandboxes.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s decision was large—one of Christo’s projects following The Floating Piers is the UAE Mastaba, still in its lengthy perpetration phase, set to be the largest sculpture ever made if constructed (“I hope to do the project before I die,” the ever-active artist said earlier this year). Paounov captures this anxiety effortlessly.

And yet. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work can feel oppressively minimal, narratively blank chunky colors that are more often juxtaposed with art gallery white. What does a sea of flags add to Central Park besides itself?

Fortunately, The Floating Piers is among their most approachable works, riffing on the long history of Western art centered around a messiah notable for walking on water. Paounov does this justice, and we see Christo conveniently touring nearby Rome and visiting the Basilica in the spirit of an artist taking a sketchpad to a museum.

This suggests another read on Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s grand ambition. Michelangelo. Public works. If Christo ends up completing a version of his Mastaba in Abu Dhabi, he has said it will be his only permanent structure, 10-times the size of the Pyramids of Giza kept safe in a desert for some iteration of eternity.

“Art is not a profession. To be an artist, you are an artist all the time,” Christo tells a group of children in Walking on Water in some classroom that he visits early in the film. If Paounov had shot Christo a year later, I imagine the filmmaker could appear more politically sympatric as Christo is a fierce critic of Trump, having pulled the plug on a project in Colorado last year that he had already invested $15 million in to protest having to interact with Trump’s federal government.

Paounov’s tone is too ironic to engage with the sincere politics of Christo’s art, so it is fitting that he doesn’t focus on the politics implicit in the art of an avowed Marxist embraced by the neoliberal elite. And yet. His camera ultimately genuflects to pure aesthetic appreciation. The visual joy of Christo’s The Floating Piers, more than anything else, is at the center of Walking on Water. It is more than a worthy successor to the Maysles’ project of a quarter of a century ago: maintaining rich, visual record of monuments to transience.

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