Five years after his wife and creative collaborator Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, the controversial environmental artist Christo began work on a project they had conceived decades earlier, an art installation called “The Floating Piers” that would give people the sensation of walking on water.
Situated in three different locations on Lake Iseo in northern Italy, the piers, all converging on a small island offshore, would consist of interlocking polyethylene cubes wrapped in yellow cloth. The streets leading up to the piers would also be cloth-covered, and the entire expanse of floating walkways would span 1.9 miles.
Whether you deem this project an extravagant boondoggle or a masterpiece, you have to admire Christo’s tenacity in finally making it happen, as chronicled in the documentary Walking on Water, directed by Bulgarian writer-director Andrey Paounov. (Christo, whose full name is Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, is also originally from Bulgaria.)
You also have to count yourself lucky that you are not part of the crew that made it happen. For most of the movie, Christo, who bears a striking resemblance to Christopher Lloyd in “Back to the Future,” is in a state of perpetual tantrum.
Paounov was, in effect, handed this assignment when, in 2016, he was approached about constructing a film utilizing 700 hours of footage shot by 10 different crews over the course of a year during the preparation and production of “The Floating Piers.” The result is a free-form documentary with no voice-over narration or staged interviews. The film’s fly-on-the-wall aspect should not, however, be taken as a guarantor of “truth.”
Everybody, from Christo and his burly, bearded operations manager and nephew Vladimir Yavachev on down to the local authorities, is well aware they are being filmed. In fact, some of Christo’s tantrums seem directed as much to the camera as to his targets. In his own irascible way, he’s a big ham. You can see this especially in the moments when he mixes it up with the adulatory crowds on the walkways. Those little hand waves he dispenses to the masses have a royal flourish.
The projects most prominently associated with Christo and his wife, none of them ever repeated, all have a monumental impermanence. They exist only to be ultimately dismantled, whether it be the wrapping of Berlin’s Reichstag and Paris’s Pont Neuf bridge in fabric or The Gates project in New York’s Central Park, with its 7,503 gates made of saffron-colored cloth placed along its paths.
I would imagine that these environmental artworks are best – perhaps only – experienced in the field. Simply observing “The Floating Piers” in this film can’t begin to convey what it must have been like to immerse oneself in the scene. (Reportedly 1.2 million people, many more than anticipated, visited the site during its 16 day run in 2016.)
It’s still possible to gasp at what is shown us in “Walking on Water,” if only from a logistical standpoint. The massive planning required for such a project is revealed in mind-numbing detail. When Christo yells at his crew for unwrapping the fabric too soon – “Do not open fabric!” he howls – you can almost sympathize with him. This is how “geniuses” behave. Or at least this is what the film would have us believe.
It’s obvious that confrontations are Christo’s lifeblood. A trouble-free project would probably be anathema to him. He views himself as an artist in the most exalted of terms. “Art,” he says, “is not a profession. You don’t work from nine to five. You’re thinking of art all the time.” What separates him, now in his 80s, from many other prima donna visionaries is that he also exhibits a self-deprecatory side, even though it betrays a healthy dose of humble brag. Speaking of his work to art students, he tells them: “There is no meaning to it. It has no real use.” But, of course, as he well knows, art does not have to be utilitarian to be valuable. And clearly the “meaning” of a work of art, especially one of Christo’s, can be experienced in highly personal ways.
Christo’s next project, briefly alluded to in the film, will be the largest sculpture in the world, using 410,000 multicolored barrels in an oasis south of the city of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Not sure I’d want to be a worker on that one, but more power to him I say! Grade: B+ (Unrated.)