Christo and Jeanne-Claude Go ‘Over the River’ and Through the ‘Lion’s Den’

BY Arts Desk  September 9, 2009 at 2:19 PM EST

This is part one of a two-part dispatch. The second installment, which will include the voices of the artists, will be published next week.

According to the proposal for a major upcoming art project in Southern Colorado, the artists (and spouses) known as Christo and Jeanne-Claude will suspend a snaking ribbon of porous polypropylene, totaling nearly six miles, above the Arkansas River. Once slated to be unveiled this year, but now postponed (at the earliest) until 2013, ‘Over the River’ will exist in dialogue with the erratic and sometimes countervailing forces of its environment. Coated with vaporized aluminum, the installation’s fabric will appear cherry blossom pink in the early morning, incandescent in the direct sunlight of midday, and tawny at dusk. The jointed canopy will respond to gusts in the canyon and be animated by a “sensual” resonance, making it move like “a child out of reach,” says Christo. To view the installation from below, viewers will have to launch watercraft in the town of Salida, and drift downriver through Bighorn Sheep Canyon — coincidentally, right through the backyard of my family’s river ranch.

If, that is, the project ever gets off the ground.

My family first learned of “Over the River” in December 2003, when we purchased two reproductions of preparatory sketches that had been put on consignment at a local antiques store by a former head of the Salida Chamber of Commerce. At the time, we assumed the project had been discontinued. “Everyone thought the project was dead,” my mother told me recently. “When we bought those posters, we did it as an historical thing — what might have been. I would never have guessed Christo and Jeanne-Claude would still be pursuing ‘Over the River’ six years later.”

Jeanne-Claude characterizes the impact of Over the River as a “gentle disturbance” to the region. But the scale of their proposal, together with the mitigation measures necessary to stage “Over the River” in a canyon entirely dependent on a single two-lane highway for basic supplies and services, has implications for the entire region. Thus, the artists’ proposal has roiled a handful of communities on the banks of the Arkansas. Skeptics in Bighorn Sheep Canyon seem motivated not just by practical concerns, but an intolerable sense that they are being taken advantage of, even hoodwinked, by the internationally renowned couple. Since they first announced their project more than a decade ago, a diffuse opposition has crystallized into an organized group, called ‘Rags Over the Arkansas River.’

Christo and Jeanne-Claude (center, with microphone and red hair) presenting a slide show at a community meeting in Howard, Co. Photo by Christopher Hopkins
The community has been inflamed by their sense that Christo’s project will be foisted on them by fiat, and by the “irrational” (Christo’s word) marshalling of scores of engineers and construction workers for a temporary art project. While there are some staunch local supporters, they seem distinctly outnumbered by people with concerns about gridlock on U.S. 50, and the belief that the invasion of 380,000 visitors (as forecast by Christo’s staff) will surely lead to unforeseen hardships for local residents, no matter how comprehensive the Environmental Impact Statement. The plan has polarized the Arkansas River Valley to such an extent that some residents feel alienated from their friends and neighbors. On the “Rags Over the Arkansas River” Web site, an anonymous Chaffee County resident addressed a state lawmaker who had expressed support for the project: “Do not tell me that I have to sacrifice my safety, my environment and my livelihood so you can have some frilly, feel-good outing one day two or three years from now.”

This is not the first time Christo and Jeanne-Claude have rankled local residents, nor even the first time that public officials or members of the art establishment have promised that the attention of the artists would reinvigorate art in the region. Many of Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s projects in rural or suburban settings (such as Wrapped Coast nine miles south of Sydney, Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin counties in California, and The Umbrellas, a bi-continental project in the United States and Japan), had the deliberate consequence of germinating conversations on the nature of art in areas largely foreclosed from the art establishment. Christo says getting a community to discuss your art can be gratifying, especially in this case, since “they’re discussing a work of art that doesn’t even exist yet,” he mused.

But in engaging communities outside the purlieus of major cultural institutions, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are often stymied by the perception that they are staging some kind of hoax. In Albert and David Maysles’ 1978 documentary “Running Fence,” a Californian rancher put it this way: “I bet you a dollar right now that I can go out and put your curtain up and I won’t have a complaint, you know why? Because everybody in this country knows me. But when a stranger comes in, they’re just a little skeptical — they don’t understand.”

On July 10, at the Howard Volunteer Fire Department, Christo and Jeanne-Claude held their third and final open house of the summer to address concerns of local residents. In contrast to the bilious and hectoring crowd that had assembled for an open house in 2006 in the nearby town of Cotopaxi (what Jeanne-Claude calls the “lion’s den”), the audience in Howard listened to Christo and Jeanne-Claude with polite attention as Christo’s Bulgarian baritone reverberated in the firehouse.

Five minutes into a slide presentation, however, the mood curdled. Someone in the back row of folding chairs called out: “I can’t understand a word you’re saying — speak English!”

Colorado Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, as well as seven of the eight U.S. representatives from the state, have petitioned Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar (a former Colorado senator and rancher from the San Luis Valley) to expedite the Environmental Impact Statement, a comprehensive review requested by the artists and overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The remaining Colorado congressman, Doug Lamborn, was aggressively courted by Christo and Jeanne-Claude and issued a news release on March 17 expressing his support for the project. As the U.S. Representative for the 5th District, which includes the Arkansas River Valley, Lamborn was immediately lambasted by his constituents, and the conspicuous absence of his signature from the Colorado delegation’s letter to Salazar suggests a more virulent response than he anticipated.

Now that Christo and Jeanne-Claude have won the support not only of some public officials but also of Lewis Sharp, director of the Denver Art Museum, and other representatives of the art establishment in the Rocky Mountain region, opponents of “Over the River” seem to have curtailed their invective, focusing more on a litany of practical and environmental concerns — including vandalism on the part of visitors, a potential disruption to emergency services, and finally, interference with the mating and feeding patterns of bighorn sheep and bald eagles — than whether they regard the project as “art.”

Editor’s note: Here is the second installment.