The naysayers of Colorado’s Arkansas River valley surely do not mark the first time in the career of Christo and Jeanne-Claude that public opposition has stalled or even threatened to completely derail a project. The artists famous for wrapping Berlin’s Reichstag, for bringing the undulating orange “Gates” to Central Park, for installing yellow umbrellas and a “running fence” along coastal California, even for wrapping an island, are not shy when it comes to doing battle for the phenomenal and temporal qualities of art. Fabric, Christo has said, marks the element of temporality in their work.
The artists’ newest formidable opponents are citizens of Salida, Colorado, some of whom are vocal in opposition to the artists’ plan to suspend in 2013, for the duration of two-weeks (a time period typical of their works), 5.9 miles of luminous silvery fabric panels along a 40-mile stretch of the Arkansas River between Salida and Canyon City.
“I don’t call this project art,” said Linda Golden, from Howard, Colorado, at an open house in Salida, CO July 8 about the proposed “Over the River” art installation. “I’m absolutely ill that it might happen,” she told the Salida Mountain Mail.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude conceived of Over the River while working on the “Wrapped Reichstag” in Berlin, a project that ensued in wrapping the entire German Parliament in white fabric. For Over the River, the artists investigated 89 possible project sites, including the Rio Grande and Cache La Poudre rivers, in Colorado. “We chose the Arkansas River because of the highway on one side, the railroad on the other, and because it’s the most rafted river in the country,” Christo said at one of last week’s meetings.
“Over the River” is designed to be viewed from below, by rafters and other river-rats, as well as from above, along the river banks.
The Howard meeting, along with others in Canyon City and Salida, constituted a public forum over the frequently postponed project during the week of July 7th. The Bureau Land Management is overseeing an environmental impact study, begun this year and slated to finish up bureaucratic wrangling by 2011.
Like many of Christo and Jeanne Claude’s projects, Over the River has generated a lion’s share of controversy for an artwork, after all, slated to last precisely 14 days. “What a slow machine,” Christo said of the process. Yet he and Jeanne-Claude have won powerful allies as well. In a letter mailed in June to US Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, Colorado Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, and Colorado Representatives Diana DeGette, John Salazar, Ed Perlmutter, Betsy Markey, Jared Polis and Mike Coffman stated: “Over The River will leave Colorado with a lasting artistic legacy and will help enhance our state’s growing reputation as a place of cultural excellence.”
Patience is a characteristic often associated with the artist known, like his wife and artistic partner, by his first name only, and an advocate since he first got the idea to wrap something, back in 1961, for art’s potential to evoke experiences of beauty and joy. “If we would never have the process, we would never realize the object,” Christo has said.
Drawings for Over the River reflect that the project is meant to be seen from underneath, by rafters and other river-rats, as well as from above on the river banks.
The wrapping of the Reichstag – no less an edifice than the German Parliament in Berlin– was refused in 1977, 1981, and 1987. Said Christo in an Artsjournal interview, “It was refused by the governmental bodies of Germany, and this is why we kept the project alive for so long… The extraordinary part of those projects is that they really build their own energy, their own relation to a great number of people. They involve the community — politicians and the people who help us realize these projects. That’s why it is not one person, like myself or Jeanne-Claude, screaming, “We want to wrap the Reichstag.” On the contrary, there is huge support by many German friends. For example, one of the greatest supporters of the project, who died before we got the permission, was Willy Brandt.”
Calling each project a “unique proposition,” Christo has noted that once completed, a project like “The Umbrellas,” “Surrounded Islands,” or “Running Fence” reflects a synergy of art, urban planning, and democracy. A constant making-new is embedded in how each of these projects surmounts the technical challenges of its site and engineering. “We don’t know how to do it in advance,” Christo has said. “Technically, we don’t know how to do it, that’s why these projects give us this marvelous experience of being unique, because they are not routine, they are not repetitious.
In the case of Over the River, governmental officials took several months to agree to conduct the environmental impact study. A draft statement is slated for completion by the end of this year and then it will take another year for the Bureau of Land Management to conduct its review. Christo has been sanguine about the time involved in these projects, which he and Jeanne Claude fund independently. “To do a painting or a sculpture takes 2 or 3 months, or 6 months, but not years. But if you talk to an architect or an urban planner, to do an airport or a skyscraper — it is quite normal that it would take several years to build a skyscraper or a bridge or extend a highway or to do an airport. I would like to point out that the projects are what they are; they have very strong elements of architecture and urban planning.”
Concern in Colorado over what will be left when the temporal installation is over has cited the “Valley Curtain,” 142,000 square feet of orange nylon fabric that stretched across the Grand Hogback Mountain Range near Rifle, CO, which was completed on August 10, 1972. Under construction for 28 months, the work was on display for 28 hours only when 60 mph gale force winds threatened to destroy the piece, and it was dismantled.Yet some of the 792 tons of concrete foundations, which secured the fabric remain at the site.
Truth is, that Colorado’s mountains are littered with the construction remains from mining and railroads, track is left rusting and overgrown, mine shafts are often open and dangerous, leaching toxic chemicals into the ground and water supply. Yet, opponents to Over the River point out that the project will require 8,992 anchors, each a minimum of 9 feet in length. A portion of most of these anchors will be left in place once the fabric is removed and grout will be used to fill the anchor holes. In all, it is estimated that there will be over 2,500 cubic yards of ground disturbed to install the anchors and frames–2,500 cubic yards along a 40-mile stretch of the Arkansas River. Not much.
“Through the magnitude and dimension of the project, opponents are engaged in creating the art,” Christo said during the open house in Salida. “Opponents create dynamics which shape the project and how it looks.”
This dialogue is very much part of the artistic process which invites people not just to comment but to become involved in the actual creation. The artists become engaged with the community, and they hope to have a long-term positive impact on the Arkansas Valley. Dan Ogden, the Volunteer Fire Department chief from Howard, CO said his department needs emergency medical training, which Christo and Jeanne-Claude have agreed to pay for, according to the Salida Mountain Mail. Not to mention, that given the current economic situation, employing engineers and constructions companies and paying people to build Over the River will be economically beneficial to the state and the communities. The tourists that will come to view “Over the River” will provide dollars that many small towns could use in the coming years. While Republican Representative Doug Lamborn did not sign the letter of support from the Congressional Delegation, he has acknowledged, “A recent study by an independent research group, BBC Research & Consulting, indicates the project may generate close to $200 million in additional spending in Colorado.”