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“Jeanne-Claude and my art exists because we like to see it and realize it. There is no meaning to it and it is of no real use,” says Christo as he addresses a classroom full of children. He is explaining how he plans to build his next project, “The Floating Piers” (2016), on Italy’s Lake Iseo. Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude became famous for their site-specific art installations, such as “The Gates” (2005) in New York’s Central Park and Berlin’s “Wrapped Reichstag” (1995), in which they wrapped monuments and elements of nature. Andrey Paounov’s documentary Walking on Water chronicles the making of “The Floating Piers,” a larger-than-life installation of walkways that allowed people to walk above the surface of the lake, from the mainland to nearby islands. It boasted approximately 1.2 million visitors over the course of its 16-day run (from June 18 to July 3, 2016). The artist couple first conceived the installation in 1970; following several permit disapprovals, Christo was finally able to realize it in 2016, seven years after Jeanne-Claude’s death.
The film opens with then-81-year-old Christo painting a canvas larger than himself. He wears a button-down shirt, trousers, and a face mask as he spray-paints on a sketch of “The Floating Piers.” His fingers are thin and wrinkled and his wispy, white hair surrounds a bald spot. Just when we begin to see him as a frail, elderly artist creating in a quiet corner, the scene changes and we see him shouting at his manager over Skype. He does not like a proposed catalogue design, and does not trust technology. Foul-mouthed when angry, he asserts, “We do it my way.” A portrait of a fastidious and uncompromising artist emerges. What is sometimes called “eccentric” in (mostly) male artists — the temper or quirks that are widely considered part of his genius — raises the question of whether a female artist would be called a genius after being rude to a professional contact. Jeanne-Claude’s presence is especially missed at this moment.
What makes Christo’s genius endearing and often awe-inspiring is the immense curiosity that motivates his artistic vision. His face lights up when he speaks about “The Floating Piers.” “It’s out of this world,” he tells everyone he meets at a press conference, and the joy in his voice when he sees the installation coming together is palpable. “Look at that, it looks like fabric!” he exclaims of the small plastic blocks floating with the currents of Lake Iseo, as they come together to form the path that would connect the mainland of Sulzano, Monte Isola, and the island of San Paolo.
While the film provides glimpses into the artist’s daily life — sitting in bureaucratic meetings with a long face and grudgingly making social appearances — the only time he seems genuinely happy is while taking tours of the finished installation. In these scenes, his visible pride is accompanied by a giddy sense of happiness from accomplishing an almost impossible goal. He flashes a wide smile at the strangers taking selfies with him and he waves to the thousands of people cheering him on as they walk along the saffron-colored pathway. He promised people they would be able to walk on water, and he kept his word.
When Paounov films the many civil servants, politicians, volunteers, and policemen who regulated the hoards of visitors to “The Floating Piers,” as well as mishaps, as in a little girl getting lost in the crowd, he posits questions about the life of an artwork. Paounov reminds us that an artist’s responsibility — particularly with a massive, interactive work like “The Floating Piers” — does not stop at the artwork’s realization but encompasses people and personal space. For example, a debate over how thick or thin the iron chains used in the installation should be has real-world consequences that impact the safety of over a million people.
To that end, Paounov foregrounds the extent to which Christo has collaborated in his career, not only with Jeanne-Claude, but with hundreds of others playing various roles in the execution of these public artworks. The filmmaker records divers interlinking plastic blocks to lay down the pier, workers sewing the fabric that covered it, and collectors buying Christo’s sketches of the installation, through which he funded the multimillion-dollar project. We see the cycle of economics and labor that is often overshadowed by the beauty of an artwork. The film also raises questions regarding the ownership of Christo’s art. Who is really the “author” of such artworks? The person who conceives it? Those who physically realize it? Or the many people who visit and occupy these pieces, without whose participation they remain incomplete?
Walking on Water ends in Abu Dhabi, where Christo goes location scouting for his planned installation “Mastaba.” Following a hiatus after Jeanne-Claude’s death, Christo remains ever eager to create more. The film offers us a glimpse into the passion with which he has created art for more than 50 years and it shows us a 360-degree view of The Floating Piers, reminding us of the very real labor that goes into creating a piece of art that looks too fantastical to be true. When we see Christo wheel his suitcase out of his hotel room, we know this is the start of yet another long-drawn magic trick he plans to pull.
Walking On Water opens in New York and Toronto on May 17, followed by Los Angeles and San Francisco on May 24, before its national rollout.