Christo and Jeanne-Claude, a married couple famously known by their first names, have been major players in the international art world for almost 50 years.
They’ve advanced the purpose and scale of public art, inspiring conflict, drawing and mixing flocks of art and outdoor tourists, and challenging often-uninitiated populations to engage with their conceptual, out-scale, impermanent works. Their projects shock with incongruity. They are high-impact, high-cost undertakings. They draw lawsuits and chagrined and ecstatic commentary. They serve as conversational flashpoints and as monumental public happenings before, after, and during their installments.
In 2009, Jeanne-Claude died, leaving Christo to carry out their works-in-progress and to continue creating on his own.
The 79-year-old widower is now deep in the throes of his Colorado “Over the River” (OTR) project, which he started with Jeanne-Claude in 1992.
OTR is set to take form in August, 2016. It will be composed of nearly six miles of silvery, luminous panels strung over the Arkansas River, reflecting the sky above and the river below.
But the Christo team, now represented by Colorado’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is still navigating the rapids of the legal currents that have gurgled all around the project. “Over the River” is being opposed by ROAR (Rags Over the Arkansas River), a Colorado volunteer organization that sees Christo’s work as invasive, dangerous and destructive. ROAR has 5,000 supporters and 300 paying members.
Beginning in 2011, the group filed lawsuits against the BLM and its approval of the Christo project. On January 26, 2015, ROAR took a third run at halting the project when it filed an appeal against a federal court ruling. To no avail. On February 12, the appeals court noted in a release that the Colorado State Parks board violated its own regulations when it approved the Over the River project, but that the violation did not matter. The court upheld the approval. The “rags over the river” project continues.
ROAR says the project is an engineering disaster waiting to happen. They cite disasters that struck Christo’s previous work: the 20-foot-tall, 485-pound yellow umbrella ripped up by gusting 40 mile per hour winds in 1991 that crushed a woman to death in California; the 300-foot-high orange nylon curtain slung between mountains 1,250 feet apart in 1971 that was ripped to shreds by a windstorm in Rifle, Colorado.
“Over the River” will require workers to drill 9,100 holes and sink 9,100 steal bolts deep into river rock. Opponents say the effort will disturb wildlife and shut down both lanes of highway 50, Cañon City’s main road, slowing daily commutes and clogging emergency vehicle routes.
ROAR contends that the project, which is scheduled to stand for a mere two weeks, will impact the Cañon City community for three years. They account for preparation, display and deconstruction. It’s a huge commitment, they say, especially for a rural setting.
ROAR representative Joan Anzelmo likens Christo’s project to “an intrusive mining excavation in a very sensitive river canyon.”
But it’s not Christo’s first time at the rodeo. He has learned how to bring his grand-scale visions to life, time and again, in the face of political and ecological resistance.
Anzelmo calls Christo, “A corporation and PR machine with abundant resources and many followers.” She further notes his ability to “woo and [cajole] politicians and officials all over Colorado and in Washington D.C.”
She’s right. Permits needed for the “Wrapped Reichstag” were refused three times before they were awarded in 1994. In an interview with the Denver Post, Christo puts down litigation as just “part of the dynamics of the projects.”
But Christo doesn’t say much about his art, at least not for public consumption. It has been a good strategy. His work with Jean-Claude raises questions in an amount equal to the scale of the works. The work is about audiences and artists, the natural world and the modern one, destruction and restoration, and the legacy of the ephemeral.
Over the River does not yet exist, as a physical thing, anyway; it is already the source of piles of press and plenty of public unrest.[ “Over the River” sketches via Christo.]