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Over the River sketches, by Christo (image from overtheriver.org)

In the latest of a long series of environmental mishaps that have attended the artist’s environmental installations, Christo’s “Over the River” project continues to be plagued by worries that the planned piece will harm its surroundings. This time, the concern is that the installation will interrupt the migration and mating patterns of animals that make their home in the Arkansas River, Colorado setting. The Sydney Morning Herald has the story.

This is hardly the first setback that the project has encountered, however. Aside from a history of problems that would make any environmentalist cringe, from blocking airspace to actually killing people, Christo’s projects, including “Over the River,” have attracted particular controversy for disrupting the local environment. The project, which proposes to shroud a section of the Arkansas River with spans of semi-transparent material, would overuse a too-small highway, critics say, and create pressure on a relatively stable ecosystem.

The newest volleys in the fight over Christo’s installation come from environmentalist organization Sierra Club, which came out in favor of the project, and renewed protest from the incisively named Rags Over the Arkansas River, or ROAR. The Sierra Club decision in particular has attracted attention. The LA Times quotes Ellen Bauder, a 40-year member of the Club:

The project is completely at odds with the [Sierra Club’s] mission… No organization devoted to preservation and protection of the natural environment can support this project and still be true to that mission.

In responding to Sierra Club’s decision, commenter Mxsq2 on Midcurrent sums up my own feelings about Christo’s project:

It’s absurd to imply this would not affect the environment in a negative way… Christo should stick to wrapping things in cities.

ROAR has a visible critique of the project underway, with arguments that include the inability of the “narrow, two-lane highway” to handle the project’s estimated “600,000-1,000,000 tourists.” That estimate seems a little high to me, but the organizations arguments are valid, particularly when it comes to wildlife. ROAR notes that negative impacts could include “Bighorn sheep, elk, deer and other wildlife kept from accessing the river for water” and “Bald and golden eagles kept from fishing and hunting.”

For me, any lasting damage to the river or the balance of the ecosystem around it is too much for this project to be worthwhile. I’ve written about the idea that installation art’s environmental impact might outweigh its artistic quality. Why should we sacrifice the Earth for art’s sake? Isn’t the wildlife art enough? For me, Christo would indeed do better sticking to cities and intervening in spaces that humans already control.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

5 replies on “Colorado Christo Still Wrapped in Environmentalist Worries”

  1. The BLM environmental assessment report has already outlined the mitigation proceedures the project will have to develop in order to proceed, while it obviously supports the “limited” adverse impact. It all seems to boil down to being viewed as an economic stimulant rather than the permanently altered landscape it imposes upon. Christo is flawed in this selfish, idealistic vision preferring to be a large scale sculptor wearing blinders about the long term ecology at stake. Too bad he doesn’t apply his creativity towards repairing and healing the earth…

    1. It just strikes me that it isn’t worth making art that hurts the environment on such a massive and obviously permanent scale. When project planners’ concern for economic stimulus outweighs environmental impact, you know something’s going wrong.

      It’s pretty clear that the local public who will be most immediately impacted by the project are speaking out against it. Christo’s is a very imposing, selfish and idealistic work, I agree. That doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong, I just don’t know if it’s worth it.

  2. This feels analogous to the kind of vanity projects carried out by 1970’s dictators. The most interesting thing about it is why somebody would spend so much time, effort and £50 million dollars to create something so fundamentally dull.

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