Like something out of a fairy tale, golden fabric unfurls across a lake in northern Italy, allowing townspeople to traverse the water’s surface. Normally, the residents of Sulzano and Monte Isola rely on boats to cross between the two, but The Floating Piers, the latest monumental installation from Christo and Jeanne-Claude, lets them walk on water. As in all fables, though, the magic is fleeting, with the Italian hamlets linked for just 16 days before the piers are dismantled after July 3.
The confluence of nature and art is at the center of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work. Wrapped Coast (1968-69) shrouded one million square feet of Australian coastline in gauzy fabric, and Valley Curtain (1970-72) strung a gigantic sheath of orange fabric between two Colorado mountain slopes. The Floating Piers is a similar dialogue between water, fabric, and sun. “The piece changes constantly with the weather, which is purposeful, because the fabric is very sensitive to the humidity of the air. In the mornings, with the humidity of the lake, it is almost red, but it dries very fast, and on a sunny day it’s gold,” Christo tells The Creators Project.
The Floating Piers is more than 40 years in the making. Christo and Jeanne-Claude concepted the piece in 1970 and over the years attempted to bring it to life in Argentina and Japan. But not until 2014, five years after Jeanne-Claude passed away, and a decade after The Gates (2005), was Christo able to realize their vision. “Going into 2014, I said to my friends, I will become 80 years old in 2015,” Christo says. “I have to do something fast before I die.” Christo has two other projects in the works: Over the River envisions silvery panels of fabric suspended over the Arkansas River, and The Mastaba will be a gigantic sculpture made of 410,000 multi-colored barrels that towers over the Abu Dhabi desert.
Lake Iseo in northern Italy is an idyllic location for The Floating Piers, with dramatic mountains sloping into the glassy lake. Christo manufactured a modular floating network of docks made of 220,000 high-density polyethylene cubes. Construction workers built 100-meter segments nearby, then pieced them together by dragging them across the water one-by-one. Divers plunged 300 feet to the depths of the lake to install around 200 five-ton anchors to preserve the geometry of the design. 100,000 square meters of dahlia yellow nylon was specially woven in Germany, then airlifted onto the lake by helicopter, to pave the docks and village streets in gold.
Every cent of the project’s €15 million price tag was financed by Christo through the sale of his art. On principle, he refuses donations, grants, royalties, or commissions of any kind, and every project he creates is free and open to the public. There are no tickets, openings, or reservations, and the staff gives a scrap of golden fabric to every visitor as a memento of the transient structure.
Nearly 70,000 people visit The Floating Piers each day since the installation opened. Extra workers are on hand to clean and maintain the artwork, but disintegration is an authentic byproduct of the project’s existence in the physical world. “Everything in the project is real. Not like images on the computer. Real wind. Real rain. Real wet. Real dry. Real sun. Real things. And if you don’t like to feel these elements on your body, if you like to be comfortable in a museum space, you should not come to this project,” Christo says. “But many people walk barefoot on The Floating Piers. This is something so natural. It’s not like going to an exhibition.”