As Christo crosses a rice paddy to ask a Japanese farmer if he wants big umbrellas on his land, the farmer asks, ``What's that foreigner doing around here?'' In a dry California valley, Christo approaches an American rancher, inviting him to allow giant umbrellas to stand over his ranging cattle. ``Are you out of your head?'' the rancher asks him.
Christo, the wrap-artist provocateur, is not deterred.
In fact, after three years of the permission-gathering that is a part of his public art, he is on schedule for ``The Umbrellas, Joint Project for Japan and USA.''
At dawn one day next fall, Christo and thousands of workers will hoist over 3,000 oversized umbrellas in two different valleys in Japan and the United States. Each umbrella is so big it will take 45 seconds to crank open.
The 28.5-foot-wide umbrellas will hover and flutter 19.6 feet above the ground for three weeks, like flying saucers above the landscape mile after mile, scattered close and far apart. The work will be his latest since he wrapped the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris in 1985 and surrounded 11 manmade islands in Florida with thousands of yards of pink fabric in 1983.
``I don't do just wrapping,'' he insists. His first proposed wrapping a building in Paris in 1961 and actually wrapped one for the first time in Berne, Switzerland, in 1968.
For the umbrella project, Christo wants others to make the inevitable judgment, like test-driving a Honda and a Chrysler, on which country is a better stage for his two-site work. ``The umbrella project is designed to show the similarities and differences of the ways of life in these two valleys,'' says Christo (who does not use his Bulgarian family name of Javacheff).
``It's like a symphony in two parts - fast and slow. The project is about comparison.'' For the color of the umbrellas in Japan, Christo chose blue, to reflect the wetness and lush foliage of a 12-mile rural valley in Ibaraki prefecture, located an hour's drive north of Tokyo and carefully selected for the project.
FOR the California valley, an area known as the Tejon Pass, located between Los Angeles and Bakersfield, he chose yellow, the color of dry, golden grass in the autumn hills.
``The umbrellas will translate how much space is available in the valleys,'' says Christo. Both valleys were chosen to provide an unobstructed view from high and low points.
``In Japan, every square meter of usable land is controlled, so the umbrellas will have a more saturated and intimate configuration.
``In contrast, the umbrellas in California will be placed more whimsically, more capriciously, reflecting the immense uncontrolled space.''
Like his other works, the umbrella project appears playful, absurd, purposeless, like a Zen koan boggling the mind and emotions.
``The project was perfectly understandable to the Japanese farmer as a work of art,'' Christo found.
``To the Japan mind, art is not just painting or the bronze sculpture but flower arrangement and rocks in a garden or dry branches of trees. It's perfectly understandable to them that an umbrella can be a work of art.''
``The work is designed to get people to question, to think, `What is art?''' Christo says. ``I come to a space and create a gentle disturbance.''
He wants people to be jolted into re-examining the everyday-ness of their environment. ``We are surrounded by trivial things which are all the same,'' he says. ``We need to be confronted with something that happens once in our lives.''
The clusters of umbrellas will be like a nomadic tribe, temporal entities invading the landscape, gypsies under canvas tents, Indians in tepees, traveling circuses in big tops.
``Artists like something that is always there. This project, by the magnitude of its energy and resources costing $26 million, will be removed.
``When I am gone, I leave nothing behind. Perhaps I am the cleanest artist in the world.''
That price tag of $26 million is not puny. The cost, he says, makes the umbrella project a ``profound aesthetic decision.'' He accepts no donations. ``The basic part of this project is freedom. It cannot be bought,'' he adds. As always, Christo raises money by selling his original works of art, such as sketches of the umbrellas in the valley.
Christo has spent weeks walking the two sites, surveying exact spots for each umbrella. The California valley, 18 miles in length, will have 1,760 umbrellas, while the Japanese valley, 12 miles long, will have 1,340 umbrellas.
He knows every parcel well, having gained permission from 435 landowners in Japan and 26 in California, a process he calls the ``software'' of his project.
As an artist who uses the earth as his palette, Christo says the umbrella project will be a ``poetic colonization'' in the valleys, and that he will be ``painting a landscape - using a little dark hill, a little of that open space.''
As the sun arcs across the sky, the translucent fabric of each umbrella, octagonal in shape, will cast luminous shadows of blue or yellow across the ground, like spotlights on a stage.
Umbrellas will also be placed on the median strip of a busy California highway, near some 14,000 head of cattle, and in the middle of a small Japanese river lined with bamboo. Christo took into account the visual effect of the umbrellas for motorists traveling through the valleys. As a student in communist Bulgaria, Christo spent weekends helping farmers prepare land and properly place their equipment alongside the train route for the Orient Express - all for the eyes of travelers from the West passing through Bulgaria.
``This is biggest problem I have in people trying to classify my work. It's a little bit painting, a little bit sculpture; it's architecture and urban planning all together.
Christo is supervising the construction of the umbrella parts at seven factories, from San Diego to Germany. The nylon fabric is designed to ``translate the movement of the wind and the air.''
The umbrellas' bases are six-and-a-half-feet-wide crosses anchored into the soil with giant screws. To make sure the umbrellas would not blow over, he tested one in a wind-tunnel in a 65 miles-per-hour gale. The 16-hour time difference between Japan and California will allow Christo to direct the debut of both events.
After the dawn opening in Japan, he will take the first flight to California in time to preside over the second unfolding on the same day's dawn. Then he will travel back and forth across the Pacific for three weeks.
He wants visitors to sit under the umbrellas, or what he calls the umbrella's ``inner space,'' in a glow of filtered, colored light.
`THE UMBRELLA was not invented in the Orient,'' he says, ``but about 4,500 years ago in Mesopotamia. It is linked to nobility, the king or most important person sits under the umbrellas.
``All those umbrellas will make all the farmers and ranchers like kings for three weeks.''
Then the umbrellas are gone, and Christo wraps up another project.