Why Christo and Jeanne-Claude's The Floating Piers is not a clown show

Many people have criticized 'The Floating Piers' by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, saying it is a shanty, a clown show. Here's why in our opinion it is not.

For many people commenting on the web, The Floating Piers, the large installation by the Christo and Jeanne-Claude partnership (which, after Jeanne-Claude’s passing in 2009, has been reduced to the figure of Christo alone), would not be classifiable in the category of artwork. These days we have read so many hasty and naive judgments about the work, often even from opinion leaders who have, however, evaluated The Floating Piers in a very superficial way. Thus, we have seen the work described as a “clown show,” a “sham,” a “marketing operation,” a “useless catwalk,” just to list the lighter terms. Of course:contemporary art is divisive, and that is normal, since it is the art of our time. So we would like to insert ourselves in this debate to propose our point of view and to try to express the reasons why, in our opinion, The Floating Piers is instead an extremely interesting work. And to do this we decided to start with some of the most popular criticisms.

Christo e Jeanne-Claude, The Floating Piers
Christo, The Floating Piers (Project for Lake Iseo, Italy) (2014; two-part drawing in pencil, charcoal, crayon, wax crayon, paint, hand-drawn maps, photo cutouts by Wolfgang Volz, fabric, and tape; 38 x 244 cm and 106.6 x 24 cm; Photo: André Grossmann © 2014 Christo)

The Floating Piers is a sham.
To think that The Floating Piers is a shanty is to label much of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s production in this way, especially their land art interventions: the bridges over Lake Iseo certainly do not represent their first “foray” into the field of land art and, indeed, represent the continuation (and perhaps even the best crowning achievement) of an activity that has been going on uninterrupted for more than four decades. The Floating Piers shares, with so many other works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude (such as the celebrated Surrounded Islands), many common traits: the intervention on the landscape, the attention to the subsequent recovery of the materials used, the strong tones that serve to make the artificiality of the work very evident, the dialogue with nature as a basis not only philosophical but also technical for the success of the project.

The Floating Piers is just a simple walkway over the lake.
Let us not go into the judgments of those who would not want to consider the installation as “a work of art,” for the simple fact that in millennia of history we have not yet managed to find a definition of “work of art” that can agree on all. But the fact remains that The Floating Piers is more than just a “walkway,” if only for the fact that it has made such a strong hold on tens of thousands of people eager to experience walking on Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s floating platforms and, on the other hand, has attracted a very large number of people ready to launch fiery criticisms of the installation. So many have compared the work to the platforms found, for example, in marinas: but how many marina platforms manage to elicit, even in a negative sense, the appeal of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work? It will be said that it is the power of marketing: it is true, probably without the media prominence that The Floating Piers has garnered, there would not have been (but who knows?) the crowds that are now storming the work, but it is equally true that it is not the success of the public that makes an installation whether or not it can be called “a work of art.” The fact that it is not a “mere walkway” is in fact due to other factors, foremost among them its significance.

The Floating Piers is a meaningless and meaningless work of art
Christo has openly stated that his work has no meaning and that the only effort required of the visitor is to walk along it and be lulled by the movement of the lake’s waters. But the day before the opening, he instead stated that “the work is open, you have to feel it. That is the meaning. And what is the meaning of feeling? You have to find out, it is not my problem, every interpretation is legitimate.” Those who have studied a modicum of art history know that contemporary artists’ statements are often deliberately provocative and contradictory: Andy Warhol, for example, made statements during interviews that were often openly at odds with each other. And the task of criticism is to question the artists’ statements, as well as to provide interpretations for the works. One of the goals of land art is to enable the viewer to observe nature with a different gaze. Underlying Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work is always a critique directed precisely at the often conflicting relationship between man and nature: a nature that is not infrequently subjugated by man for purposes that are anything but noble. The Floating Piers is a demonstration of how man and nature can coexist harmoniously, while remaining two separate entities: on the one hand, therefore, the gentleness, variety and natural colors of the landscape, and on the other the strong geometric lines and bright hues of human intervention. The fact that the whole thing is made of recyclable materials, which will be properly treated by specialized firms when The Floating Piers is dismantled, is obviously illustrative of this meaning attributable to the work. A work, in short, to reflect on our relationship with nature, but also on ourselves. The Floating Piers is also the realization, albeit momentary, of one of the dreams that have always fascinated mankind, that of walking on water: the work is, in short, the concretization of autopia, albeit temporary, with all that this entails. It is, in other words, an installation intended to stimulate in those who walk on it, but also in those who observe it (and not necessarily live), the thought that there are no dreams in which it is not worth believing. A further intent is to smooth out diversity: access to the work is free of charge, and there are no queue-jumping services. The bridge has, in fact, another value: that of a symbol of union and, consequently, of harmony and concord. It is no coincidence that the students of the art high school in Bergamo, inspired by The Floating Piers, imagined to repropose (obviously in a completely imaginative way) the same installation between Libya and Sicily: the great power of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work also lies in its ability to induce us to think about the world around us, and that of the Bergamo students is a beautiful demonstration of this. Clearly, these are mere speculations, with which one may agree or disagree: but they are as much so as those who consider the work meaningless.

The Floating Piers is an ephemeral work
The Floating Piers is certainly an ephemeral work because it will last just two weeks, but land art is itself ephemeral; the vast majority of land art interventions are destined not to last. This is because nature is changeable, in nature everything changes: therefore, since land art is an art form in which man intervenes in nature, the temporal brevity of the work cannot but follow. What is not meant to be ephemeral, however, is the visitors’attitude toward nature: the purpose of The Floating Piers is to foster a dialogue between those walking on Lake Iseo and the surrounding landscape. This dialogue is fueled by awe, reflection, emotion, presence. It is the artist himself who stated that, “The ’artwork requires involvement with the space. Everything from the joy of taking off shoes and walking barefoot is part of the involvement.” It is the enthusiasm that does not have to be ephemeral, on the contrary: the ability to observe nature with a renewed eye must last beyond the period of the installation. Of course, then, among the thousands of visitors, there will be many who are intent on traveling to Sulzano and its surroundings just because the work is considered a great world happening (and free of charge, to boot). But it is hoped that the message of the installation will also reach those who are not used to grasping the deeper meanings of a work of art.

The Floating Piers is an impactful work.
Absolutely not, The Floating Piers was made entirely of recyclable material, and as mentioned above, it is not meant to last: so it makes no sense to talk about impact on the landscape. Unless one wants to understand “impact” as “aesthetic impact”: of course there will be those who will not like the installation, but that is certainly no reason to lash out at the work. It is other kinds of impact toward which we should turn our attention: it would suffice, for example, to inquire about the cementing of Lake Iseo. This is the real impact on the landscape.

But then is everything perfect?
Of course not, there is probably no such thing as perfect in the world, much less in the world of art. There are many critical points of the work on which more clarity should be given. Starting with the relationship between Christo and the Beretta family (the gun manufacturers): a friendship that clashes with the work. One may think that everyone chooses the friends they want: yes, but one should also check whether the friendship is consistent with one’s art. For Christo it probably will be, for those who think that the work should have a deep meaning it surely will not. Then there is the knot to be solved about the contracts of the collaborators who helped the artist to create the work: according to the unions there were irregularities. Finally, new details have emerged about the costs, which seemed to have been fully covered by the artist, to the tune of 15 million euros: on June 9, in fact, the Lombardy Region declared that it had taken on, together with the local authorities, a 3 million euro burden.

... And so what?
And so it is a work of contemporary art. It divides, likes and dislikes, some people consider it art and some don’t. When faced with art, everyone draws their own conclusions: we have offered you ours.

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