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SULZANO, Italy — I decided to make the journey from my home in Rome to Sulzano in northern Italy to judge the merits and pitfalls of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “Floating Piers” — an almost two-mile long floating walkway situated on Lake Iseo — for myself. I aimed to test Christo’s assertion that his work is purely aesthetic: “This work, all of our works, Jean Claude and myself, we do it for ourselves, they’re totally unnecessary, they don’t serve for anything except to be a work of art, and like all of our works they need to be lived […] you need to physically go through [it].” While consistent with Christo’s general attitude toward his work, given the logistical challenges of “Floating Piers” — which consists of three floating bridges made of 220,000 polyethylene cubes covered in 1,076,391 square feet of orange-yellow fabric — it’s hard to see how aesthetic values can be separated from social and economic concerns. This is one of the basic arguments of modernist aesthetics. In his Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant asserts that one can only have a purely aesthetic experience if it is free of any judgment regarding the goodness or usefulness of a given object or phenomenon. As such, large-scale public or private expenditure — whether perceived as worthwhile or not — will arguably always impede an artwork from being a purely aesthetic experience, so long as large amounts of money change hands and there are vested interests in the success of a project.
“Floating Piers” cost a considerable amount — 15 million euros — which led the Italian consumer rights group Codacons to claim it would file a complaint to the Court of Accounts in the Lombardy region, demanding that the expense of the project to the taxpayer be made public. Codacons have cited disruption to trains and the costs of policing and cleanup as among causes for concern.
While Christo claims he self-funded the artistic production of the project, the Beretta family, who manufacture small armaments on a huge, international scale, gave some logistical assistance, and donated the use of their private island of San Paolo, which marks the ultimate destination for visitors to the “Floating Piers.” On June 18, the day the walkway opened to the public, Beretta posted on its Facebook page: “A small island, belonging to the Beretta family, plays a leading role in an art installation. Next time someone tells you guns don’t make art …” The post itself is undoubtedly in bad taste, but it was only under the blazing heat of the Italian summer, when I reached the villa of San Paolo, that the perversity of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s gesture sank in.
But first, when I arrived at Brescia train station, I found my connection to Sulzano — which has a population of just 1,956 people — had been temporarily suspended due to tourist overcrowding. As a result, I arrived one hour later than planned and faced a three to four-hour wait to access the piers. Ignoring Christo’s claim that the wait is part of the artistic experience, I skipped the line and entered through a security gate on the pretext that I was looking for the press office, something that in reality I had no intention of doing.
The floating structure of the work, which causes the floor to dip slightly under each footstep, made it harder to walk than on a normal pavement or footbridge. All in all, there was a strong element of endurance to the experience, partly because of the crowds at various junctures along the piers’ route, from Sulzano, to Monte Isola, to the Isola San Paolo, and partly because of the punishing heat. I couldn’t help feeling that seeing the lake from the piers was much harder and more uncomfortable than seeing it from the lake’s shore, which I later had hours to do peacefully from my nearby campsite — an experience which I took beyond doubt to be purely aesthetic and which was entirely hassle- and cost-free.
When I finally reached the villa of San Paolo — to which all roads led for thousands of visitors that day — it was closed. I’m not sure what I expected — free lemonade upon arrival? Water? A thank you for one’s efforts? In any case, there was no such luck.
It is undeniable that “Floating Piers” has tapped into the public imagination, drawing 270,000 visitors within the first three days of opening and over 500,000 to date. But if we are to take the work as a purely artistic statement (and a very popular one), it is nonetheless one that connects the private villa of an arms manufacturer to the mainland, drawing the parched masses to the Beretta family’s closed doors. I came, I saw, and I left feeling that a beautiful lake had been mired by a large-scale reinforcement of the social fabric: a paean to neo-feudalism, no less.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “Floating Piers” continue on Lake Iseo, Italy, through July 3.