If there is a phrase that best describes the Bulgarian-born Christo, it would be “epic artist.” Through such large-scale outdoor projects as wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris, Christo garnered worldwide renown. Now, Walking on Water takes a soaring documentary lens to the man and the work.
Christo usually worked in collaboration with his wife Jeanne-Claude, who in 1994 started receiving retroactive co-creator credit on all Christo’s major works. When Jeanne-Claude died of a brain aneurysm in 2009, Christo withdrew for a number of years from public life.
Christo returned to public life in 2013 with the project Big Air Package. Also in 2013, he began work on The Floating Piers, a project conceived with his late wife in 1970 but never executed. The Floating Piers were to be a series of walkways installed at Lake Iseo near Brescia, Italy. From June 18 to July 3, 2016, visitors would be able to walk just above the surface of the water from the village of Sulzano on the mainland to the islands of Monte Isola and San Paolo. The floating walkways were made of about 200,000 polyethene cubes covered with 750,000 square feet of bright-yellow fabric. Almost two miles of piers would be on the water, while another mile of golden fabric would cover the pedestrian streets in Sulzano and Peschiera Maraglio.
Behind the scenes, at scale
It was the process of executing this mammoth project that was filmed by Christo’s countryman, Bulgarian-born filmmaker Andrey M. Paounov, for the documentary Walking on Water. This film gives us the rare opportunity to observe the behind-the-scenes process of this unique artist, and glimpse the inevitable problems that arise with a project of this scale.
Working with his irascible yet stubbornly loyal director of operations, Vladimir Yavachev, Christo had to contend with obstacles posed by unsatisfactory construction materials, bad weather, and the interminable pace of the Italian government’s bureaucracy. With that last, though, we see how quickly red tape can be overcome when an impatient artistic superstar decides to throw his weight around.
And a superstar Christo definitely is. Constantly beset by hordes of press and mobs of fans whenever he makes a public appearance, Christo’s cult of celebrity is almost disturbing to watch. In fact, the artist’s fame proved problematic once the Piers opened to the public, when they were beset by many thousands more people than anticipated. Worried about the probability of an accident with such crowds, Christo’s people ended up pleading with Italian authorities for help with crowd control.
As fascinating as the story of the Piers may be, the focus remains on Christo, the artist and the man. As with many artists, Christo’s focus on his work is intense, almost monomaniacal—he can be quite unpleasant in pursuit of his vision. One develops quite a bit of sympathy for director of operations Yavachev, himself not always a nice guy, for how often he must juggle the demands of the project with the demands of his celebrity boss.
But, after all the difficulties, The Floating Piers became another triumph for Christo. Paounov’s cameras prove exceptional in capturing the scale and beauty of this golden ribbon floating on the water. With a series of distance and overhead shots, Paounov effectively conveys the scope of the project in the context of the beauty of Lake Iseo.
And then there are the people, tens of thousands of people, strolling across the water on Christo’s floating golden ribbon. Most of these people may not understand Christo’s art, but something compelled them to show up and walk on the water. Watching the expressions on their faces as they walk on this golden strip of fabric, this epic art, we can perhaps understand what that something might be.
What, When, Where
Walking on Water. Directed by Andrey M. Paounov. Opening at Ritz at the Bourse on June 21.