Monday, August 5, 2013

Colorado Fish Wrap: A River's Scream of Freedom

Christo and Jeanne-Claude making plans in Colorado, 2000
Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been wrapping things up for more than 50 years. They started off small, in 1958, with a dumpster-size, black-glob of a package wrapped in fabric, lacquer and rope. They wrapped up oil barrels, a night table, a Vespa motor bike, and by the mid-1960s they were wrapping up fountains and towers in Italy. They wrapped Switzerland's Kunsthalle in translucent plastic and wrapped Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art in greenish-brown tarpaulin. Then they began wrapping up nature, covering cliffs, rocks and beach with erosion-control fabric along a 1.5-mile stretch of Little Bay on the coast of Australia. In 1972 they ventured to Colorado, and hung a 1,250-foot orange, nylon curtain across a Valley in the Grand Hogback Mountains. It looked like a giant dam.

In the 1970s and 80s, they wrapped up a Roman wall; created a 24-mile fence of white nylon hung from steel cables across the hills near San Francisco; made a walk way of yellow fabric in Kansas City; surrounded 11 islands with pink, floating fabric off the coast of Florida, and then covered up the Pont Neuf in Paris. On October 9, 1991, they had 1,800 workers simultaneously open 3,100 giant umbrellas spread throughout the landscape in both California (yellow umbrellas) and Japan (blue umbrellas.) They wrapped the Reichstag in an aluminum-surfaced fabric; stacked 13,000 colorful oil barrels inside the Gasometer in Germany, and covered 178 trees with polyester in Berower Park, Switzerland. Then off to the Big Apple, in 2005, where they hung 7,502 panels of saffron-colored fabric across the gates of Central Park. From the high vantage of a skyscraper, it looked like a flowing golden river of flags blowing in the breeze. Or laundry hung out to dry.

Now they want to cover a river--a 40-mile stretch of the Arkansas River between Salida and Canon City in south-central Colorado--with silvery, luminous fabric suspended from steel cables anchored into the river banks.

A few weeks after moving from Missoula, Montana to Washington, DC, I received an invite to a private, pre-opening exhibit called "Over the River: A Work in Progress," at the Phillips Collection just a short walk from my apartment in Dupont Circle. It was a pleasant, relaxed gathering with white wine only (lest you spill red on the samples of translucent fabric on display) and tasty hors devours. We 50 or so folks attending were the "first to survey the artists' preparations for their next widely anticipated work of art," I read, "tracing the development of this ambitious project over the last 16 years." I forgot my glasses, and so had to stand close and squint to see the collages, conceptual drawings, photographs, technical diagrams, maps, writings and sample fabric panels and cables hanging on the walls and set up on the wooden floors throughout several rooms. Christo and Jeanne-Claude haven't started the actual installation of anchors, cable and fabric yet, as they await completion of an Environmental Impact Statement and other bureaucratic, time-consuming reviews, public scoping meetings and approval from the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency responsible for management of that portion of the river and land around it.

If the agency treated this proposal as thoughtlessly, carelessly and hastily as they allow gas, oil and coal-bed methane wells, roads, power lines and pipelines to permeate and scar our public lands and rivers, Christo and Jeanne-Claude could have proceeded long ago. But this is art; hardly worthy of the same time, attention and "priority status" given to the extractive industry, as ordered by the Bush administration. (Perhaps the artists could wrap up the Whitehouse, topped with a big red ribbon, as a house-warming gift to Obama.) Then again, we will need plenty of C02-emitting fossil fuels to power planes, cars, trucks and SUVs for the 560,000 people Christo and Jeanne-Claude estimate will flock to the area during the several years covering installation, completion and eventual removal.

Modern art: creative, inspiring, lucrative. Like everyone working to persuade anyone of most anything nowadays—particularly Westerners in struggling rural communities—Christo and Jeanne Claude present an alluring economic case. On their website, here's how they put it:

"Many visitors will spend the night in areas surrounding the Arkansas Valley, bringing economic benefits to many communities, including Pueblo, Denver, Colorado Springs, the San Luis Valley and a host of smaller towns on the Western Slope. The total number of visitors represents slightly more than twice the number of persons who raft the Arkansas River in any given year and approximately the same number of yearly visitors to Mesa Verde National Park. Three out of five Over the River visitors are anticipated to come from out of state, spending an average of 4-5 days in Colorado for their trip. . . . In total, Colorado may garner more than $195 million in new direct visitor spending, more than what is projected for the Democratic National Convention ($160 million) and over twice the impact of the National Western Stock Show ($84 million)."

Which explains why nearly ever chamber of commerce, visitors' bureau and tourism council in the area, as well as several outfitting and expedition companies and organizations, have endorsed the project. As have art councils and cultural centers, who are duly pleased to have the accomplished, famous duo back in their part of the world.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude were both born within the same hour on June 13, 1935 (he in Bulgaria, she in Morocco) and met in Paris in 1958. They've been collaborating ever since. Their art is unique, creative, inspiring, and has been described as "transcending the traditional boundaries of art, profoundly shaping the way in which we see and experience our environment." Jeanne-Claude describes their art as "works of joy and beauty," but is reluctant to classify. "Christo and I believe that labels are important, but for bottles of wine, not for artists, and we don't like to put a label on our art," she said in a 2005 interview. "If one is absolutely necessary, then it would be environmental artists because we work in both the rural and the urban environment." To which Christo added: "Our work is a scream of freedom."

When an interviewer once asked how they respond to the critics who say their work is "more engineering than art," Christo responded, "Well, that is simple because, if you try to imagine a human being doing chemistry, mixing pigments, adding an egg, putting a little bit more oil, more of a different pigment. Now, that is pure chemistry? Or is it Leonardo DaVinci or Michelangelo preparing to paint a fresco on the wall? So, you could say that's chemistry, but it's definitely art. If you imagine two ironworkers with their hardhats and a forklift, lifting giant slabs of steel, now is that construction work or is Alexander Calder preparing a sculpture?" (Which brings to my mind an Albert Einstein quote: "All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.") Christo and Jeanne-Claude seem smart, bold, feisty, energetic, ambitious, genuine, sincere, honest and nice, if not a tad arrogant and quirky. I recently read about an interview in which Jeanne-Claude told a photographer, "You're too close. We are 73, and I don't want to be seen from so close. Then, I look like a fish."

There are fish in the Arkansas. Brown trout and rainbows, mostly, thriving in the cool, clear waters of the upper portion that meanders through Colorado. Originating from snowmelt in the Sawatch Mountains near Leadville, the Arkansas River is the sixth longest river in the country, flowing 1,469 miles through Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas before merging into the Mississippi. Like most rivers, unfortunately, much of the Arkansas has been tamed, altered, defiled and otherwise subjugated to human greed, needs and desires—the usual sad assortment of ailments including dams, mining wastes, erosion, sedimentation and artificial introduction of non-native species such as brown trout and rainbow trout; An ongoing utilitarian, homocentric quest to mold and modify nature into what we want it to be. But parts of the river, in the headwaters of Colorado, remain wild—a tumultuous torrent of water cascading through and over and down ledges and narrow canyons in a series of waterfalls, rapids, riffles, pools and eddies. Spend enough time in or around wild rivers and you learn they are living, breathing entities in themselves, with their own distinct sense of smell, sound, taste and feel. Beauty and joy, indeed! Wild rivers, too, are a scream of freedom.

Needless to say I felt a bit uneasy at the Philips Collection exhibit. I was selfishly, provincially relieved that Christo and Jeanne-Claude did not choose any of my favorite rivers in Montana during their 5,000-mile quest for the "right one," in which they checked out 89 rivers in five states. I read the artists' vision of "waves of fabric," "playing off the natural lighting throughout the day, transitioning from shimmering pink in the morning light, to shiny silver in the mid-day sun, to golden as the sun sets," and I wondered: have they ever just sat along the bank of a wild river in solitude at sunrise or sunset or times in-between? Can such things be improved? "From the water level, rafters, kayakers and canoeists on the Arkansas River will view blue sky, white cloud formations and the undulating mountain skyline through the fabric," Christo and Jeanne-Claude state. "Cars and buses on US-50 will also get a unique view of Over the River from the roadway, where the fabric will reflect the colors of the sky."

Is this like altering the Mona Lisa to better fit one's own notion of beauty? Plastic surgery for Mother Nature?

"There's a sense that this kind of '70s-era 'environmental art' has more links to heavy industry -- to old-fashioned well-drilling and dam-building -- or to industrial-scale tourism than to some more recent art that's been made with genuine ecological feeling," wrote Blake Gopnik in the Washington Post, in regards to the Phillips Collection exhibit. "This whole exhibition feels more like a publicity campaign for a product than like a considered investigation of an important aesthetic event."

Indeed. Even the artists' response to concerns seem cut-and-paste from a gas and oil industry PR template: "Christo and Jeanne-Claude have a proven track record of avoiding and mitigating impacts associated with their works of art . . . Christo and Jeanne-Claude have proactively partnered with communities in the Arkansas River Valley to identify solutions to community concerns. . . Christo and Jeanne-Claude view wildlife as one of the Valley's greatest resources and are committed to ensuring that installation and viewing activities do not disturb wildlife. . . Christo and Jeanne-Claude understand the importance of the fishing and rafting industries to the Arkansas River Valley and are committed to working with them in the planning and execution of the temporary work of art." And so on. Regarding a hefty Environmental Impact Statement to be released, Jeanne-Claude stated: "And some of those who are against would say, 'Ah, you forgot about the butterflies, what about those butterflies?' Then the engineers who have prepared it will answer, 'If you look at page 257, you will see that we are talking about the butterflies.' That's just an example. If we have indeed forgotten something, which might happen, since this is only a draft there is time to correct it and say that no alligator will be endangered, for instance. (laughter)"

Ah, you forgot the inherent, intrinsic value of the free, wild river itself. What page is that on? If someone proposed temporarily wrapping my beautiful, 8-year-old son up on in translucent saffron plastic, so the light made his hair look more golden--even if they "mitigated" with a few breathing holes to ensure his safety--I would not be pleased. I feel that strongly about wild rivers. Like any love, like good art, it's difficult to grasp, never mind explain.

I tried, when asked, at the Phillips exhibit. My thoughts were met with apparent looks of disbelief, perhaps amusement, giving me a distinct feeling they felt, this guy just doesn't get it. Maybe I don't. But even after reviewing instructions, the "How To Read The Works" section of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's website (the Pont Neuf Wrapped, I learned, "could be seen as a very large sculpture, in a traditional sense of antique folds and draperies, however the bridge, while wrapped, remained a bridge."), I still don't quite get it; at least not the same as those who are excited about the project. Yet I think a purpose, the value, of good art is to evoke thought and discussion, to help bring out emotions and passion. In that regard, I commend Christo and Jeanne-Claude for their inspiring work.

In his book "The Abstract Wild," Jack Turner writes: "We treat the natural world according to our experience with it. Without aura, wildness, magic, spirit, holiness, the sacred, and soul, we treat flora, fauna, art, and landscape as resources and amusement. Fun. Their importance is merely a function of current fashions in hobbies." He talks about how most of our "wild" places are "photographed and exhibited" to the public, written up in guide books, plotted on maps and watched over by a "cadre of rangers." It's the "normal mode" of experiencing the wilds nowadays, he writes. "Most people know no other." So let's wrap it to look prettier! Fly to Colorado, rent an SUV, hire a guide, read the instructions, get a hotel room and buy a latte while we're at it.

I've spent a lot of time alone in remote places, listening to the ancient songs and stories of wild rivers running over rock on tumultuous journeys from snowmelt towards oceans; bathing in the clear, cool waters; watching the various lights and shadows dance across the surface; seeing, smelling, tasting and watching through ice and snow; thunderstorms and floods, clouds and sun, and shinning under stars and moon. Wild rivers are the greatest art of all, growing ever scarcer. Beauty and joy, they scream of freedom; we should listen, learn and leave them alone.


Note: This was originally published in the fall 2009 issue of Trout Unlimited's Trout magazine as the first in a now regular feature called "Voices of the River." 

Postscript: Jeanne-Claude died in 2009. Christo continues seeking approval for the project. In June, 2013, a federal appeals panel upheld the permit. A group called Rags Over the Arkansas River (ROAR) continues to fight the proposal.  

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