We readers are marked forever by great authors—they are never really dead. We carry them around with us.
I write them letters.
Both born June 13, 1935, Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Marie Denat de Guillebon, who died November 18, 2009, are environmental artists who use fabric to wrap buildings, bridges, islands, trees, and other elements of nature. Christo likes to refer to his installations as “irrational, irresponsible, useless.” Others of us describe them as life changing.
(En route to The Floating Piers, Part One)
This is not my first love letter to you. I'm sure you're used to getting letters from crackpots, but not necessarily from someone who used to think you were one.
But that's an older story--back to that later. At this point, not only do I think you walk on water, but you are going to let the rest of us join you. So right now I want to live in the present and tell you what's on for today, 1 July 2016.
But before we bid arrivederci to the topic of craziness, I admit to being a total nut case whenever I have to leave my nest. I have to say, however, that today's departure is different--the least crazy in memory. I credit you for that. You have set a good example and made me a woman on a mission.
I probably should have thought ahead of time that to set out on a 6-hour voyage to your Floating Piers right after Part One of a root canal, and in a newly repaired (we hope) 14-year-old car, might not be so smart. But you know all about life on the edge. With your short-term projects that can take decades to prepare, you may understand better than anyone the need to carpe those diems. So car issues, root canal, agoraphobia, and all those rumors about overcrowding be damned, my husband and I set off to catch the last two days of your Floating Piers project.
This may sound frivolous, but in my packing, I made a point to include a pleated orange top that would not clash with the way you outfitted your Floating Piers, and that reminded me of your other projects.
There were signs on the highway warning that parking for the Christo event was closed. The web site said a number of discouraging things: That trains were being delayed or turned away, that there could be a wait of hours or more, with the possibility of never making it onto the Piers at all. Then there was the ominous weather report about potential storms causing a shut-down of the Piers. All this is not music to a neurotic woman’s ears. In a 1989 poem, I described you as “the winner of the Woody Allen look-alike contest.” Well, you may look like Woody, but as I read this, I see that I’m the one who thinks like him.
So what? I once heard you mention, after saying how many decades you had been attempting to get permission to wrap the Reichstag, "All my projects have several times ‘no.’ I am [sic] very stubborn man."
I kept that comment in mind as inspiration at each of the literal roadblocks we encountered en route to the Piers. We had to circle back around a traffic rotary several times before an impatient policewoman would even inspect our reservation that would allow us to get to the apartment we had rented. It certainly didn't hurt that we had with us our Italian artist friend who knew just how charm her countrymen. Phew! We're getting closer...
(Getting closer! En route to The Floating Piers, Part Two)
Then came the stormy, gray weather that threatened to close the Piers before we could even sneak a peek. And also a decision to be made: Should we wait on line for the shuttle buses that might never arrive? And just to bring us to another line that might never end? Or take the suggestion of Roberto, whose apartment we’d rented, to wait, perhaps forever, for a boat ride to the Piers?
Here's where some of my worst anxieties--the ones that make it hard for me to leave home--rear their ugly head. As I look at the churning water, I, who have been known to get seasick merely by imagining a water scene, am having second thoughts. Maybe a long wait on endless serpentine lines under what could turn into a blazing sun might not be so bad? At least if I arrived by shuttle bus, I wouldn't worry about taking a misstep on or off the boat, losing in the process, this IPhone that contains all my notes for this writing project, not to mention my priceless hearing aids.
A possible sequel to the aforementioned neurotic worries: let's just say I somehow managed to make it onto the Piers without myself or my belongings falling into the lake. Would I feel seasick once on the Piers, themselves? What about the sun? Woody and I, we don’t tan, we stroke. Would my back and sea legs hold up during the 3-kilometer walk? Well, guess what! Something—actually, it was YOU, the master of temporary displacements! (and not all those years of therapy)—who made me put all those concerns aside. En avant! AVANTI! Full steam ahead!
So how did we actually make it onto the Piers? The story was that our landlord Roberto's young friend, Riccardo, co-owner with Francesco of a little motorboat, was out on the water somewhere with his girlfriend, but everyone seemed convinced he would show up soon. After all, it was lunchtime, and they'd probably get hungry. Many unsuccessful attempts were made to text Ricardo, but since it seemed that he was the only way we might get onto the Piers, we dug in with a bottle of water, prepared to wait. After four hours, just as we were about to give up, who should appear but Ricardo with a bevy of bosomy beauties that included his mom. So much for all the hanky-panky between him and the girlfriend that we had been imagining!
By now the threat of the storm had passed, the waters had calmed, and it took just the promised few minutes for Ricardo to whisk us to our destination, where helping hands got me off the boat without incident. He even offered to come back to get us later, and would not take any money.
(Time-out for some background! En Route to The Floating Piers, Part Three)
Before getting to The Piers, I hope you won’t mind that we are going to do some time travel. I’m thinking that you who know all about timelessness, delayed gratification, and being in the moment might agree with me that chronology is not always what it’s cracked up to be. At the beginning of this letter, I alluded to our older story, but said I would get back to that later. It was important to me to maintain focus on the project at hand. I am always amazed at how you manage to do that, given how many proposals you devote yourself to, often over decades. Once again, you are being an effective teacher to me.
So never mind that it was just July 2016. We are going to zip back to 1989. One of the great perks of being at an institution like Yale is that eventually, most everyone who is anyone shows up, and you can actually talk to them. I had only heard a bit about this artist, YOU, who would be coming to the campus to give a talk at a Master’s Tea.
Here’s what made me want to go. I had taught French in Paris for the Choate Program the summer after your 1985 wrapping of Le Pont Neuf. I really didn’t know anything about you then, but had heard from a reliable and generally hard-to-impress friend about the transformative effect on Paris of your Pont Neuf project. I actually went out of curiosity to see you and Jeanne-Claude. As I approached the Master’s House at Yale’s Calhoun College where you would be, I was still thinking that I would come away agreeing with your detractors. To my surprise, I was completely blown away by the two of you—your integrity, brilliance, tenacity, willingness to take total responsibility (but not a cent from anyone, because you know that financial support always comes with strings attached), complete lack of arrogance, and refusal to do more than create a time-limited “gentle disturbance.”
Unlike me, you love transitions and the transitory. You have no interest in leaving a permanent mark or in seeking to own anything. You “borrow” space. Here’s how you put it in the interview with Gianfranco Mantegna for the “Journal of Contemporary Art:”
"Everything in the world is owned by somebody." But "we go in" and "we create gentle disturbances; we are borrowing...space and use it intricately for a short time."
This is one of the things about you that I find most remarkable. In your modesty and determination only to "borrow" spaces and to create no more than "a gentle disturbance," you are the only man for whom those words are NOT an oxymoron.
And yet, your projects do leave a different type of mark, one with which Marcel Proust would find an affinity. I’m thinking here of the comments by British art critic Marina Vaizey, who is quoted on page 45 of the Taschen book from their Basic Art Series by Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Christo and Jeanne-Claude that I bought at the Piers:
After the work has been put up and then taken down, it remains in the memory of the thousands who will have experienced it firsthand; it remains in the memory of those who will have seen the work on him, on television, in the newspapers. And an integral part is Christo's own portable art, the magnificent sketches, drawings, collages and prints that are both his working drawings and works of art in their own right.
The temporary quality of the projects is an aesthetic decision for the sake of endowing the works of art with a sense of urgency to be seen and a feeling of tenderness that arises from their very transitory nature. It is these emotions of love and tenderness that Christo and Jeanne-Claude want to offer to their works as an added value: A new aesthetic quality.
I noticed at The Piers that my fellow walkers were not necessarily the same people I might encounter at a museum. It’s true that some skeptics sniped that the reason so many came was because there was no admission charge, and because they wanted to brag to friends that they had done it.
But accessibility is important to you. In comparing what you do to what is the province of museums, you said that "Traditional sculpture creates its own space. We take a space not belonging to sculpture, and make sculpture out of it. It's similar to what Claude Monet did with the cathedral at Rouen." As Albert Elsen put it in the 1990 Sydney exhibition catalogue: "It is in the populist nature of (the Christos') thinking that they believe people should have intense and memorable experiences of art outside museums."
This accessibility extends to a wide array of differently abled people. I read in conjunction with your 1978 Wrapped Walk Ways project in Kansas City that a bus full of blind people came, and after walking the walkways barefoot, they said "We saw your project."
This was similar to what happened at The Umbrellas, Japan—USA (1984-1991) project, where, to the delightful surprise of the artists, blind visitors said they were able to "see" the umbrellas--to grasp their size by the degree of shade they provided from the sun.
The Japanese sense of vision embraced the concept that, as Jeanne-Claude herself put it, "an umbrella is roof, a house without walls." And that the Japanese would remove their shoes before sitting under them was proof that they understood your intentions for the space.
(And speaking of your intentions, En route to The Floating Piers, Part Four)
Of course, you know all about your own intentions for your projects, but in case anyone else is reading this letter, I’m guessing that they might not have had a chance to see the eloquently-stated facts that were part of a brochure for The Floating Piers. (By the way, I recall that at The Gates, although the friendly “monitors” had similar brochures and even actual pieces of the fabric that they were willing to hand out, one had to know to ask for them. Many didn’t.)
“For sixteen days—June 18 through July 3, 2016—on Italy’s Lake Iseo, 100,000 square meters of shimmering yellow fabric, carried by a modular floating dock system of 220,000 high-density polyethylene cubes, will undulate with the movement of the waves as The Floating Piers rise just above the surface of the water.
Visitors can experience this work of art by walking on it from Sulzano to Monte Isola and to the island of San Paolo, which is framed by The Floating Piers. The mountains surrounding the lakes offer a bird’s eye view of The Floating Piers, exposing unnoticed angles and altering perspectives. Lake Iseo is located 100 kilometers east of Milan and 200 kilometers west of Venice.
A 3-kilometer-long walkway extends along the water of Lake Iseo to form The Floating Piers. The piers are 16 meters wide and approximately 35 centimeters high with sloping sides. The fabric continues along 1.5 kilometers of pedestrian streets in Sulzano and Peschiera Maraglio.
The Floating Piers project was first conceived by Christo and Jeanne-Claude together in 1970. It is Christo’s first large-scale project since Christo and Jeanne-Claude realized The Gates in 2005, and since Jeanne-Clade passed away in 2009. As with all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects, The Floating Piers is funded entirely through the sale of Christo’s original works of art. After the 16-day exhibition, all components will be removed and industrially recycled.”
I want to elaborate on some of the attributes I mentioned about you a few paragraphs back. The necessary tenacity you describe in the course of the lengthy process to gain permissions for your projects reminds me of the long preparation for an elaborate dinner that gets eaten all too quickly. Or of the long gestation period for the birth of a cherished child (who “borrows” space in the womb?)—especially if one starts at the very beginning of the relationship between the parents. But even then, where is the real beginning? Further back?
At that 1989 Yale Master's Tea, you and Jeanne-Claude spoke eloquently about your quest, begun in 1971 and not to come to fruition until 1995, to wrap the Reichstag. You called the Reichstag a "Sleeping Beauty…Very single...Separate from all the other buildings, sitting very lonely at the edge of the Tiergarten… A Mausoleum" that evoked centuries of German history, “that belonged to all the German people.”
To wrap a structure of such breathtaking size and complexity seemed like an unrealizable dream, but I see from my notes that I saw you in October of 1989, and the Berlin Wall came down just a month later. There was a chance….
Meanwhile, back at the Tea, I found myself ecstatically scribbling notes throughout your presentation. Then I went home and feverishly turned them into a poem I called “Willing to take the wrap: Christo comes to tea.”
I knew that you would be on campus the next day for a continuation of your talk, so I went back intending to give you my poem as a gift. At the end of your presentation, I shyly said a few words of thanks to you in French, and gave you my finished poem in a sealed envelope. I was pleased with myself for having done something so uncharacteristically bold, but it was my enthusiasm that had emboldened me. I never expected anything in return, but here’s what happened.
I guess you liked my poem, because a few days later, I found on my front doorstep a giant, very well-wrapped mailing tube with a return address of Howard Street in Soho. (What could it be? I didn't think I knew anyone there.)
Inside were a number of stunning posters, all signed CHRISTO.
I've been collecting data to write more about you since the day I went to see you at that Yale Master's Tea, certain that you and Jeanne-Claude would be a curiosity, rather than hero material. Instead, you definitively knocked my socks off!
This feels like the right moment to revisit my poem, "Willing to take the wrap: Christo comes to tea.” Forgive me if I zig and zag a bit to include some of the notes I took as preparation for writing that poem. The title of my poem refers to your courageous willingness to take total responsibility for all aspects of your projects, and to the facts that I learned about you first-hand at that Calhoun College Master's Tea. There, you completely won me over, and I found a new hero.
To see you that day made me rethink the way you, unlike me, have never had a problem with investing herculean efforts and decades in a project that might never see the light of day, and that would be subject to a strict time limit. Your projects show understanding of a concept that has always eluded me: "Game over." When the preordained time is up, all evidence of an installation must be removed, the site returned to its original state, and all the materials used are to be recycled.
Although detractors like to refer to the you as egotists, you are nothing if not self-effacing. I liked your modest smile when you told us you seek to create what you like to call "a gentle disturbance." In fact, paradoxically, it's the ephemerality of the fully realized projects that are at the root of their urgency and power. It is rare to hear of anyone who has experienced a Christo project, even a blasé Parisian, who does not confess to having been forever marked by their participation in it.
Perhaps the key word is "participation." Whether as a paid witness (you insist that every project employ round-the-clock "watchers" to make sure things go right), or as an observer, every participant gets to feel an integral part of something unique.
I say this as someone who sensed all of the above even before ever being on the scene of one of your projects. The only one I had experienced first-hand was The Gates at Central Park, which came very late in my fixation on you. Even though I have never been a fan of New York or of most large cities, I could feel the life-changing effect of your project on myself and those around me.
My young niece (then age 4.75) and nephew (age 1) who had not yet visited museums and were too young to know anything intellectual about you, and even my aged mother who is no museum goer, responded to this event. I doubted they would ever forget it. More about that, soon…
(My poem about you, “Willing to take the wrap: Christo comes to tea,” En route to The Floating Piers Part Five)
So much for all the preamble about that poem. So far, only you and Jeanne-Claude have gotten to see it. Maybe it’s time to show it to someone besides us three. Because I wrote it before the computer era, I have never actually recorded it in any way other than the piece of paper on which I typed it. And since I only had one copy other than the one I gave you, I was afraid to lose it in coming from New Haven to Italy, so I took a photo of it with my phone. I am going to transcribe it from there now. Here goes.
“Willing to Take the Wrap: Christo Comes to Tea”
His works in progress
come via Kodak Carousel
only no one is bored
all eyes keyed
to the hunched figure in jeans
winner of the Woody Allen look-a-like contest
the wife encased in grey leather, shocking pink socks
fuschia striped shirt, flaming orange hair
islands, or Pont Neuf
he doesn’t shirk
“I absorb total liability”
Talks about borrowing, not owning space
His lack of pretense, (no buffoonery), wealth of integrity
In this age of rushing to make a mark
to cheat time by leaving lasting impressions
he aims for the temporary
creates a gentle disturbance
not a frontier of arrogance
In their urgency to be seen, their vulnerability
these peripatetic projects resemble nomads
Never mind the universal—herculean effort goes to the chosen spot
the materials new, useful, recyclable, destined for donation:
a welcoming pyramid of 410,000
oil barrels gleam in the Arab Gulf
like an Islamic mosaic
as war rages
What about the saffron-colored waves of fabric
for the walkways of Central Park
suspended like a golden roof, sensual disorder in all directions
arabesque-ing in two weeks of winter wind?
Takes only minutes to explain, painstaking preparation to persuade
a 200-page report to reject
Dealing in permissions isn’t easy
“It won’t cost the taxpayer a thing” can be your best argument
provide around-the-clock monitors
(600 for the 800’ Pont Neuf)
as 3 million on the bridge experience the event
sending shivers up the flics
The Yalies listen respectfully, albeit amused
the plump patroness of the arts tries not to look miffed
at his refusal to accept a cent
an artist who understands there can never be “no strings”
that real collaboration doesn’t exist—always somebody on top
talks about Prime Time for viewing a piece
and the need not to exceed it
Each project must have a hidden kamikaze dimension
an expedition into the uncharted
This man knows freedom and wants to scream it
beyond all confines
Art need not justify itself
esthetic, though not necessarily beautiful
form, color, a dynamic relation
with its site
engagement à la Sartre
This unassuming figure in two-tone brown
pursues since 1972 his compulsion to dress
the Berlin Parliament
“All my projects have several times ‘no’
I am very stubborn man.”
Phew! I am very relieved to see that I still like the poem, and hope that you will, too
(Are we there yet? Yes! Here at last! En route to The Floating Piers, Part Six)
Back to the mission at hand. As pleased as we were to be walking at last on the saffron-colored material of The Floating Piers, where we landed was not the transformative part of the experience. Once we had passed through the section of the project that ran through the town, however, everything changed.
As you, yourself, said years ago in an interview with Gianfranco Mantegna (“Journal of Contemporary Art”), at a time when The Gates were still an unrealized dream,
“You can see the people change. They start smiling at each other, they start talking to each other. They are in a completely different state of mind. It is very rewarding for us, because they feel that freedom, they feel that they are witnessing something that happens once in a lifetime."
Indeed, it felt like that at The Piers, just as it did when we had walked your Gates in Central Park. I could not stop smiling. What diversity among our fellow walkers!—people of all ages, shapes, sizes, races, and degrees of physical ability! What joy on the faces of those in wheelchairs and strollers! A family of ducks and a preening swan became show-stoppers. Ditto for the impromptu tango dancers (of varying ability, but no matter) moving to the sound of portable music. Even on the porta-potty-dotted parts of the walkway that ran through the town, we found ourselves watching with fascination the fish going about their banal business, swimming in the clear water. To be there created a hyper-consciousness and appreciation of every encounter.
I had read your thoughts about the enhanced awareness that is an important element of your earlier projects, and those comments can certainly apply to The Piers. It’s true that it can be exciting to have to focus attention on things we take for granted. To walk on a wrapped surface does require a certain intentionality. I like what you said about your Wrapped Walk Ways in Kansas City 1978, a project whose relative simplicity you look on with nostalgia:
“You never watch what you walk on, now everybody was obliged to be aware of how he walked on that fabric, otherwise he would break his neck because there were so many folds in the fabric. In the most ordinary and banal process of walking, suddenly people were obliged to readjust themselves, to rethink how they moved through that space, think every path, think every step." Jeanne-Claude added a poetic postscript to this idea, "and maybe from the first time they watched their children take their first steps, they became conscious of their feet."
You like to say that there is nothing useful about your projects, but Paola Crestan, our Italian artist friend who came with us to The Floating Piers (who by the way, is not much of a museum-goer) helped us put into words what we were feeling:
“Non è utile ma è un simbolo della possibilità di congiungere --di creare un ponte di incontro fra le persone.”
Although Paola’s comments, like most things, sound better in Italian, I translated them as: “Floating Piers may not be useful or necessary in the traditional sense of those words, but they are a symbol of the possibility of creating a point of encounter for all people.” She added, “Through his vision, Christo did something that didn't seem possible--to unite land, sea, and people.”
Paola, an artist who also knows how to paint with words, had another way of putting her impressions:
"Oggi la passerella di Christo porterà i colori di tutta l'umanità." (“Today Christo's runway will be displaying the colors of all humanity.”)
After our miraculous day at The Piers, it was time to “refuel.” We weren’t expecting to necessarily find great food on this trip, but had some surprises. The first was hearing the disastrous crunch of a fancy Mercedes hitting a pillar in the parking lot of our restaurant, La Pernice, perched high above the lake. Oops! I found my overly-empathetic self thinking that you, who at every stage of your projects have to be ready for all manner of serendipitous events, would have taken that contretemps in stride. I tried to emulate your sang-froid. The lovely restaurant had three fixed (and not overpriced) menus prepared for the occasion: meat, fish, or vegan. We had them all, and no one was less than thrilled. The health-conscious Paola, who is accustomed to finding that in Italy “vegan” often equals “tasteless,” pronounced "scrumptious!" her carrot-coconut soup, chickpea farinata and basil pesto, and “seriously” chocolate cake. The night view of the lit Floating Piers from the restaurant balcony was another highlight.
But then our dessert in the elegant dining room began to be punctuated by raucous cries and moans coming from the adjacent bar. What could it be? You, who love to juxtapose "opposites" like land and sea, ranchers and farmers, Japanese rice paddies and American hillsides, always seem undaunted and able to incorporate everything that happens into the experience of your projects. I'm thinking that you might have liked the serendipity of carrot-coconut soup and a loud soccer game.
When we left, the score was tied at one goal each for Germany and Italy. Even though the final score broke many an Italian heart, we felt like winners. After all, there will be plenty of soccer games. But only one last night of Floating Piers on Lake Iseo.
By sad coincidence, the death of Elie Wiesel coincided with the close of the Floating Piers. Yet it feels good to hear the words "never again" that we associate so strongly with Wiesel in a less painful context. When you yourself say "never again," I think you mean "there will never be another Umbrellas or Surrounded Islands” or Floating Piers “because they are sublime, unique things."
I am lucky to have a French writing partner, Jacqueline Raoul-Duval, who has just written a moving tribute to Wiesel that I will be translating for the online journal “Versopolis.” When I asked her about you, she said that you have also been a good teacher for her. Although she has only seen your Pont Neuf, she has seen many pictures of your other works. Drawing some interesting parallels between you and Wiesel, she says about you,
Firstly, Christo teaches us about memory. In front of the draped Pont Neuf, I asked myself, “What lies underneath? I could barely remember. From Christo, we learn that we only truly see things when we can no longer see them in a literal sense, and that is a formidable lesson. It’s a psychological lesson, one that can be applied to the Holocaust and the need to remember. That’s because no one really saw the Pont Neuf until it was draped! A ghost!
And these ephemeral works, like our lives of which barely anything remains—photos, some letters, some clothes to donate—this is all part of a terrible and formidable lesson! And to think that this couple whose origins were so different, the Christos, shared so completely their vision for each project!
Christo taught us to see, to remember, to reconstruct through memory; he taught us to pause, to witness and take notice, and love while there is still time, before people and things disappear.
As someone who recently had to divest and empty her home of 35.5 years, I’m finding that Jacqueline’s comments about you are making me think more about the role of memory in coming to terms with the transience of all things. In writing to Balzac about the task of learning to travel lighter in life, I wrote, “The bottom line is that we are all renters. Everything we think we possess is actually on loan.” And you, Christo, are teaching me that there’s nothing tragic about that. Au contraire!
(Echoes of The Gates, En route to The Floating Piers, Part Seven)
Having warned you that we would be embarking on some time travel, I am now going to return to the present. My formerly little niece, Jillian, the one who saw your Gates eleven years ago, is now 16, and on her first trip outside the States. This week, I am getting a vicarious thrill "cyber-following" her around France. (When I was 16, the closest to France that I could persuade my parents to allow me to get was the French summer program at l'Université de Montréal, but times have changed.) I had told Jillian we were just back from your current installation in Italy. When I asked if she remembered her 4.75-year-old self seeing The Gates, she said:
"Yes! I remember that:)
But who is Christo?"
Immersed as I was in writing about you, I found that a delightfully naive question. I sent her some info, a link to https://www.britannica.com/biography/Christo-and-Jeanne-Claude
and to a lovely 5-minute video about you and Jeanne-Claude that I found on Facebook https://m.facebook.com/xtojc/videos/?mt_nav=1
I also really enjoyed Chris Livesay’s 6-minute documentary/interview with you for National Public Radio. (www.christopherlivesay.com) It was fun to see the actual installing of The Piers.
With respect to my niece, to try to capture the interest of a teenager excitedly zooming around Paris, and who had just been to the Louvre to say hi to the "Mona Lisa," I came up with this quick answer:
“Wow! What energy you have! You are taking full advantage of the city and doing SO much! I am really impressed. The Christos are environmental artists who use fabric to wrap and enhance buildings, bridges (they did Le Pont Neuf in Paris), islands, trees, and other elements of nature. Their projects can take decades to get permission, and are always temporary. We walked on water for miles last weekend on The Floating Piers in the middle of Lake Iseo, Christo’s first installation since The Gates. It was only up for 16 days. All parts of it are currently being dismantled and recycled. The 15 million bucks it cost is paid completely by him through the sale of his drawings.”
Back to you, Christo. I don't think you would mind a bit that your Gates made a lasting impression on a toddler, even if your name did not.
When I wrote about all this to Jillian's parents, her mom responded:
“We all remember The Gates so fondly. Avery was only 1-year-old. When we got back in town, I had him in a grocery cart at the local health food store and there was a photo of The Gates behind the counter. Avery was having a little talk with me about The Gates. I think he started the conversation by spotting the photo and saying ‘Gates.’ The lady behind the counter said, 'That is the smartest two-year old that I have ever seen!' and I just had to tell her that he wasn’t even 2 years old yet!!!"
So when is the right age to experience a Christo installation? At your Floating Piers, in addition to us Old Farts, we saw many young parents pushing strollers, not to mention pregnant moms who would soon be doing the same. One was even dancing a joyful tango. I can't speak for her baby, but I'm betting that the future mom will never forget that moment.
(Time for a coda, En route to The Floating Piers, Part Eight)
This letter has been quite a journey in itself, and I hope that it hasn’t ended up feeling as interminable as some of the preparations for your works-in-progress. Like you, I have trouble giving up on a project, and I still have a number of thoughts I would like to add. I wish that I could wrap them up as elegantly as a Christo project, but since I am not optimistic about that happening, I’m going to include them here before saying arrivederci.
Full disclosure: This letter is coming to you soon after an “epic” conversation I had with another of my heroes, Vladimir Nabokov. I am trying to imagine him and Vera promenading down The Piers. Would they have come? And if so, would they have appreciated what you were doing? There are many points at which I think you would be at odds with each other. Unlike your predilection for including them,
Nabokov had an aversion to too many statistics and facts that, for him, could destroy the magic of an experience. His violent dislike of what he thought of as Freud’s “too much understanding” might not be in tune with what you do. I’m not sure how to understand my passion for you and him.
On the other hand, I have written to Marcel Proust, with whom some of your ideas seem in harmony. In your interview with Gianfranco Mantegna (“Journal of Contemporary Art”), via questions like “Is art immortal? Forever?" you have addressed the need to change people’s notions of art. In response to whether the length of time of an installation could be extended, you said, “It is kind of naïveté and arrogance to think that this thing stays forever, for eternity. It probably takes greater courage to walk away than to stay. All these projects have this strong element of missing, of self-effacement, that they will go away like our childhood, our life.” Yet, as is case with Proust’s madeleine (and the posters with which you gifted me), we can hold onto the memory.
To merely borrow space is a modest endeavor. You compare the vulnerability, temporariness, and fragility of your work to "a nomadic tribe that moves through the desert. They fold their tents and overnight they could build an entire village and the next day they would be gone… Freedom is the enemy of possession, and possession is equal to permanence." This is why the projects cannot stay. Yet, as Jeanne-Claude reminded us, “It is very expensive to be free."
As I free-associate and recognize the links among the men of letters to whom I write, and between my self “now” versus “then,” I know that when I next write to Flaubert, I’m going to mention your mutual dedication to precision. Here is an example in the context of your description of a key component of The Floating Piers:
"The texture of the fabric, the cloth, is fully dynamic, not static. It is not like a bronze, it is very sensual, very teasing material. You like to push it, to touch it. It is very tactile, that's why all these projects have the quality of inviting you."
Another example of a trait that you and Flaubert share can be seen in the way you speak about the effect of the transient nature of your projects. Even though English is not your native language, you use it very precisely:
"Your comparison between before and after is very fresh, it is not something you are used to. All this links to that transition existing in the project, the project is in a continuous transition, passing and going away."
Your early description of the future effect of the proposed Gates turned out to be right on target:
“The project is very ceremonial: when the wind is blowing, the fabric becomes like a roof. The project is very festive, very playful, between the strong, restrictive geometry of the gates and the very sensual disorder of the fabric flapping in all directions.” I think that Flaubert or Proust would have been very pleased to have written a sentence like that last one. I know I would.
Jeanne-Claude also had a way with words. On the topic of the recycling from The Umbrellas, she said, I imagine with a twinkle in her eye, that "the aluminum from the umbrellas is probably part of an airplane flying in the sky, or a can of ginger ale."
I’m no artist, but I’m going to close by referencing two close friends who are, and whom you have influenced. One, Paola, who was literally able to accompany me to The Floating Piers, just sent me a photo of her latest watercolor, “Walking Barefoot on Christo Dahlias.” It is a gently exuberant explosion of the colors we saw together at The Floating Piers. The other friend, Judy, an artist in many media who is in the midst of a family health crisis, was unable to come to Italy. But even so, we made the journey together, in spirit. What you have to say about so many things, especially about temporariness, resonates with my favorite piece of her art. In her wispy calligraphy, she created a card that reads,
to number our days
that we may get us
a heart of wisdom.”
The next time I write you, maybe it will be on one of Judy’s cards.