No one makes the world disappear like Christo and Jeanne-Claude. For almost seventy years, they have marked the environment, wielding textiles like a chisel or pen. In 1968, they shrouded a coastline in Australia with over one million square feet of fabric. By literally covering the rocky forms, the art installation created a tension between what you could and could not see. One of their most memorable artworks made the largest building on a city block, the Reichstag in Berlin, disappear. In 1995, the entire structure was enveloped by a silvery fabric and tied together with blue rope. The ornamentation and materials of that place vanished behind the light and shadows of the draping. The history and politics associated with the structure hovered over this masked form as if it were inviting the audience to find a new place or interpretation for it. Christo and Jeanne-Claude have wrapped monuments, surrounded islands, and blocked passages. Their installations are not about making the world invisible; they’re about seeing a world that is made out of the invisible.
In both natural and built environments, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are making our world present and absent at the same time. Even their projects in the most rural locations are surrounded by people, as individuals and communities spend years organizing and constructing the artworks. Many people travel long distances to see Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s temporary interventions. The artists compare this to a rainbow, of which you cannot say, “I will look at it tomorrow.” In their art practice, the environment is thus defined as the place, the people, and the present moment.
The opportunity to experience the unseen layers of our world is the reason I traveled to Lake Iseo in northern Italy during the summer of 2016. It was there that Christo produced his first environmental installation in ten years and the first artwork completed after his partner and collaborator Jeanne-Claude passed away in 2009. This was also the first installation Christo made since my children were born, so the whole family got to go.
I look forward to seeing environmental art through the eyes of my children. Their expectations, associations, and visceral responses add value to my own experience and interpretation. With little children, it takes more effort to get anywhere and they have less patience for everything. This means that if an artwork does not create a meaningful experience, we will only remember the extra effort it took to see that artwork rather than any beauty it tried to create. And when I see art with my kids, they show me how to play and laugh with it. They believe that what they sense and feel matters, and they are driven to be curious about the littlest parts of life and art.
And so we traveled over five thousand miles with preschoolers to experience The Floating Piers, an artwork that would exist for only sixteen days. In preparation, we looked at photographs, drawings, and videos from the last two years of its planning and construction. Numerous international news sources reported it as a place to experience tranquility and elements of nature. The artwork was pitched as a chance to walk on water. We were inspired by the preview images of the geometric slithers cutting through the vastness of the dark waters and quiet hills. We imagined it as a place where we might feel the ground teetering not only with our feet but also with our souls.
We arrived on the third day of the installation, and our hotel manager greeted us with a slew of gossip about how the neighboring towns were spinning in circles trying to keep up with the unexpected numbers of tourists. The artwork was estimated to hold eleven thousand people at one time. Fifty-five thousand people visited on the first day. When too many people were present, it was reported that buses and trains were not permitted to drop passengers in Sulzano, a town with a population of less than two thousand that sits at the start of the installation. We also heard that The Floating Piers was evacuated several times over the first three days, and the rumors about the bus and ferry lines were daunting. However, we had made it through the police barricades to our picturesque hillside hotel on Lake Iseo.
From our breakfast table, we had an aerial view of The Floating Piers, a three-kilometer-long orange (or yellow) path that stretched over the water from the small town of Sulzano, around the island of San Paolo, to Monte Isola. The morning light made the artwork seem like the quiet walkways we imagined from photographs. We left after breakfast to find the public ferry and figure out how our reservations worked. Standing in the unseasonably hot sun and a long line with two preschoolers, we learned that the reservations don’t really work. I didn’t expect the shortage of parking, the long waits in line, or the crowded ferry, but I still hoped the art installation would be as still and magnificent as the images I’d seen of this installation and Christo’s past installations.
We stepped off the ferry and onto a sidewalk blanketed in fabric. We also stepped into a flow of sweaty bodies moving ungracefully in the same direction. Swept along with the crowds, it was hard to look around and process what we were seeing. Approaching the transition from the island onto the piers, we watched as official scuba divers inspected the intricate system of ropes, anchors, and modular cubes that allow the masses to walk across the lake. When we finally began walking on the section over the water, we paused to take it all in. As we were starting to find our space and relax, an official volunteer stopped us and told us to turn around as no children or elderly were allowed on the San Paolo island section at this time because there was a threat of evacuation due to the high temperatures and repairs that were being made to the anchors. The volunteer recommended we try another time.
My four-year-old and I stared at the volunteer in shock, and then my son began to tear up. The volunteer gave him a swatch of the cloth, but my son did not believe it was real because the color of the installation had been changing with exposure to the sun for sixteen days. My oldest son, who had been asking to see Christo since we got off the plane in Milan—“Is he here? When will we walk on water?”—was crushed. I was tired. Too tired to search for the depth or brilliance amid the long lines, limited space, and swarming spectators that that flock to this type of large-scale temporary artwork.
We shuffled back to the ferry line and were passed by a mini ambulance. We knew it would take too long and be too hot to walk over to another section of the piers. As we recovered in the shade, we saw Christo float by on his barge. We stood up and waved. “Bravo,” we exclaimed. He was here, and so we determined to visit again on another day and time.
We tried hiking to a vista. We tried the ferry for a second time. But in both instances, things didn’t end up like we hoped. As the numbers of visitors soared to nearly 1.2 million people in sixteen days, the opportunities to get to the art installation became slimmer and slimmer. We heard rumors of long lines, of passengers on trains being turned away, of larger and larger evacuations. On our last day in Iseo, we begged our hotel receptionist to convince her niece to let us pay her to take us in their personal boat.
After the toil and chaos of our past days at the The Floating Piers, cruising across the quiet lake on a private motorboat at sunset felt like hope. Even if the piers were crowded when we arrived, the moment was beautiful. As the sun set, we were finally able to walk The Floating Piers—actually, my children laughed, did flips, and ran barefoot. Christo came by in his barge, and we four Americans waved and shouted triumphantly at the creator. On that evening we walked for hours, and no one whined, no one asked for ice cream, and no one wanted to take a break. If you have spent significant time with little children, then you know that is transcendence.
My experience of The Floating Piers was not what I imagined. It was not the delicate intervention or vast experience of space that I saw in the photographs or that I read about in the previews. The fabric was a golden rainbow, but it was also stained and ripped. As Christo suggested, walking along the installation felt as if you were walking on the “back of a whale,” but it also felt like a racetrack. When the artwork was activated by people, it created something different than I expected. Reflected on The Floating Piers, Christo said that “People come from everywhere to walk to nowhere.” That is one of the clearest possible observations about this artwork. The idea of a destination became the subject that was hidden and revealed. He wrapped our journey in fabric. Rather than sensing the invisible qualities of the lake and mountain, the installation revealed the more basic and fragile elements of how we move together.