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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Christo: Over the River

Air Date: Week of

Over The River Life-Sized Test, four life-size prototype tests were conducted in 1997, 1998 and 1999 on private property near the Colorado/Utah border. (Photo: Wolfgang Volz, © Christo 1999)

The environmental artist Christo's latest project, Over the River, would suspend miles of shimmering fabric above the Arkansas River. But, as host Bruce Gellerman reports, the project is not through the woods yet. It still needs federal approval.



GELLERMAN: The headwaters of the Arkansas River begin as a trickle high in the Colorado Rockies and rapidly the flow turns into a white water torrent that runs 15 hundred miles east through four states.

Bruce Gellerman and Christo look at photos of his project. (Photo: Yulia Govorushko)

Rafting the Arkansas is said to be about the best in the nation. The fly-fishing is fast and furious, and it turns out it’s also the perfect place, says the artist known simply as Christo, to create an enormous, environmental work of art.

CHRISTO: Look at that. See how the river curve? All that will be fabric. Marvelous, marvelous, unbelievable, beautiful.

GELLERMAN: Christo traveled 15 thousand miles and visited 89 rivers before choosing this stretch of the Arkansas near Canyon City, Colorado. It’s a 20-year-long artwork-in-progress. Christo envisions suspending 8 sections of shimmering, translucent fabric panels over miles of the Arkansas, for the project he calls: Over the River.

CHRISTO: I was not aware of that famous song - "Over the river to the woods ... Dah dah dah dah dah dah!" I like very much the title. It’s exactly what is the project - over the river because nothing is over, is over.

GELLERMAN: Christo says Over the River will be temporary – the installation will exist for just two weeks.

CHRISTO: The proposal is to suspend a fabric panel - minimum eight feet above the water, some occasion is ten, 15 feet above the water, - and that span of 42 miles, which will span 5.9 miles of fabric panels in many locations. The project will take you one and a half hours on the road. To see the project inside - the project is above you - take about four and a half hours.

GELLERMAN: To create his artistic statement, Christo had to create an environmental impact statement. It runs 17 hundred pages and cost several million dollars to produce. But even if it’s approved by federal officials, Over the River won’t be entirely through the woods. A group known as ROAR – Rags over the Arkansas River - has filed a lawsuit to prevent the project they charge would be like quote: “hanging pornography in a church.”

(Photo: Andre Gellerman)


GELLERMAN: Christo acknowledges his project is audacious, but he welcomes the controversy, as I learned when I met him in the four-story SOHO brownstone in New York City that serves as his studio, gallery, and home.

CHRISTO: I work alone in my studio. Ask some artists at 76, can tell you that…

GELLERMAN: At 76, his face is deeply worn, black glasses set off his white and wild hair. Christo is short, wispy thin, wears worn jeans and a threadbare shirt with French cuffs tied with tiny pieces of string. The artist is passionate and pugnacious and quickly establishes the guidelines for our interview:

CHRISTO: I will answer all your questions, but I will not talk about politics, religion and other artists.

GELELRMAN: Well, that’s fair enough.

CHRISTO: Because all my time I reserve for myself. Only talk about myself - Jeanne-Claude and myself - that’s all.


GELLERMAN: To understand Christo, you must know about the love of his life, Jeanne-Claude.

CHRISTO: They were a cosmic couple born on the exact same day and year - he Bulgarian, she French. They met in Paris, fell in love and married. But her parents disapproved of the eccentric, impoverished artist who wrapped small objects in paper and fabric.

So Christo and Jeanne-Claude emigrated to the United States and for half a century they collaborated - sharing a vision for transforming landscapes into vast works of art, using islands, coastlines, famous buildings and bridges as their canvas. Christo, the artist, Jeanne-Claude, project manager.
One of their major early works was Running Fence. In this film documentary, Jeanne-Claude stands by the sea describing Christo’s vision:


JEANNE-CLAUDE: What he wants to do is that have the 18 feet fence, you know, go until you can’t see it anymore.

MAN: Until he can't see it any more.

JEANNE-CLAUDE: Right. So, I hope it doesn’t take until Hawaii to do that! (laughing)

GELLERMAN: Running Fence was erected in 1976. It consisted of two thousand, 18-foot high sheets of white nylon. They ran 24 and a half miles along the northern coast of California, then plunged into the Pacific Ocean.

[MOVIE CLIP: JEANNE-CLAUDE: And it would be nice that they start early in the morning when they open in the fog, and when the sunshine comes up, it's there! Like a miracle! That would be great!]

GELLERMAN: Jeanne-Claude died two years ago, but her influence – firey hot as her bright red hair - still burns within Christo.

CHRISTO: Jeanne-Claude and myself, when the project is realized, we like to stay with our baby. Each project is like a child of ours…us. Each project is some period of our life. But Jeanne-Claude was saying, always, I should use her name, if I really like to have the preferable one, is always the next one. (Laughs).
Anyway, for all our projects, we like to have the very articulate and very not misleading title. When the project is called Running Fence, its fence was running. When it’s Valley Curtain, it’s curtain in valley. When it’s Umbrella, it’s umbrellas.

GELLERMAN: Umbrellas consisted of three thousand giant blue and yellow umbrellas set in California and Japan. It took 17 years from concept to completion, and cost 26 million dollars. For Valley Curtain, they hung a giant orange nylon sheet between two Colorado Mountains.

For Wrapped Reichstag, they used nine-miles of rope to tie a shroud of woven plastic around the German parliament building. It took an act of Parliament to get the project approved. Christo recalls each project down to the size of every anchor, nut and bolt. And remembers the exact moment that inspired his latest project: Over the River.

He tells me it was back in 1985, when he and Jeanne Claude were supervising workmen as they wrapped the Pont-Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, in beige fabric.

CHRISTO: Jeanne-Claude and myself were standing, the fabric was floating, was moving with the wind, like that, like that, like that. And we saw the fabric suspended way above the water. Now that image stayed in our mind. And only in 1992, Over the River was born.

GELLERMAN: But did Jeanne-Claude say to you: "Lets do something," or did you say it to Jeanne-Claude?

CHRISTO: No, no, no. We remembered that image.

GELLERMAN: So one piece of art gave birth to another piece of art?

CHRISTO: No, not piece of art. In a moment of execution of one piece of art. But this is not, first of all, a piece of art.

GELLERMAN: This is not a piece of art?

CHRISTO: No, the fabric suspended over the water to come to the wrapping of the bridge was not a piece of art, like the oil paint on the pallet of the artist is not a piece of art. It’s material for the piece of art. We use cloth. And the fabric is the principal element to translate this temporary character - nomadic character - of the work.

All our wrapped projects, they’re like living objects. You know, the fabric is not cemented. The fabric is a full motion - moving with the wind all of the time. And it’s not something like stays static. And what would Jeanne-Claude and myself we like to do is to borrow that space, and create gentle disturbances for a few days.

We have that tenderness and love for something will be gone forever - like our life - we know that will be gone. Like our childhoods - we know that will be gone. And something we’ll miss tomorrow forever.

Christo’s rendition of his Over the River project. (Photo: Wolfgang Volz, © Christo)

GELLERMAN: So, are you sad or are you happy when they are over?

CHRISTO: No, no! That is the aesthetical decision - of course we are very happy. The very bottom of all project, Jeanne-Claude and myself we are absolutely involved with the freedom.

GELLERMAN: The freedom?

CHRISTO: Freedom. Absolutely, artistic freedom is the supreme part of our existence. This project, it is only because myself and Jeanne-Claude would like to have them, not because public like to have them, or some corporate executive, or some foundation, or some.…the world can live perfectly without our Valley Curtain, or without Surrounded Island, without the Reichstag.

They are totally irresponsible. All our projects - they’re irrational, totally useless, and the world can live without them. But, in some way, they cannot be bought. Nobody can own this project. Nobody can charge tickets for this project. Nobody can ... even myself, I do not own this project. We do not accept any sponsor, any grants. All our work is copyrighted, trademarked. Nobody can commercialize anything.
We are ferociously involved with keeping absolutely our freedom outside of any possession.

GELLERMAN: But it means that since you’re not funded by a foundation or companies or you can’t sell tickets, it means…

CHRISTO: How we pay for everything?

GELLERMAN: You’re a starving artist?

CHRISTO: Is not inexpensive venture. This is a very complex operation, and the money come to pay the services of many, many people - hundreds of people working on sometime: lawyers to construction workers…

(Photo: Andre Gellerman)

GELLERMAN: ...to environmental scientists, engineers, and more lawyers. Over the River could cost upwards of 50 million dollars. Christo pays for his projects entirely by himself. He sells small pieces from his early works, preliminary drawings of projects in the works, and books chronicling the creation of his iconic masterworks. At a public hearing in Colorado before her death in 2009, Jeanne-Claude was asked about the price tag for Over the River.


MAN: How much will the project cost?

JEANNE-CLAUDE: It is very much like bringing up a child. It will cost us whatever it has to cost.

MAN: Is there an estimate?

JEANNE-CLAUDE: No - ask your mother if she had an estimate on you!


CHRISTO: We do not know what is the project when we start. This is why we don't do commissions. The project develop his identity to the permitting process.

GELLERMAN: So, is the process part of the art?

CHRISTO: Absolutely! Imagine I can tell you absolutely the most vivid and most powerful genesis of the work is in permitting process.

MAN: But I’m asking you to explain - to sell it to a public entity - why they should allow it to happen?


Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-95 (Photo: Wolfgang Volz)

CHRISTO: No, I can't tell you. I can't tell you. No, I’m an American citizen. I’m a taxpayer…


GELLERMAN: Members of the organization ROAR - Rags over the Arkansas River - say Christo’s plan to span 42 miles of river with 5.9 miles of suspended sheets of fabric will create an eyesore that will disrupt emergency vehicles, discourage tourists, permanently harm the river banks and endanger bighorn sheep that live along the Arkansas. For Christo these concerns are all part of the creative process.

CHRISTO: Any artist, he hope that the work create discussion. That people think about the work. We’re the only artists in the world who our work was discussed before the work exist!


CHRISTO: For years and years, thousand people think awful the work will be, how beautiful the work will be. They argue.

(Photo: Anya Gellerman)

GELLERMAN: So, you’re not discouraged by the controversy that Over the River’s caused.

CHRISTO: I’m not masochistic, No. I love to have less problem. But this it's never, never, never possible.

GELLERMAN: But you like mixing it up. You like the argument. You like...

CHRISTO: No, but that is the soul, but that is the soul, the blood of these projects. This is why you are here. Because, usually, the art world is a very small club - like a private club. And of course, imagine what pleasure we have to talk to ranchers, to the politicians, to Senators, to the Japanese rice field farmers, to a variety of people that usually you don’t talk to these people.

You know, it’s very, very important to see how the project really creates that chemistry of things and builds this dynamic. This is not theater, is not spectacle, is not make-believe. This is coming to the real things, I tell you.

The real things: the real wind, the real weather, the real sun, the real dry, the real things - no make-believe. I love the things I do. I am enjoying every minute of the work I do - from the little drawings, to flying, discussing and I scream, I’m emotional, but it’s… I will never retire. Jeanne-Claude always saying: an artist don't retire, they simply die.

GELLERMAN: Is Over the River going to happen?

CHRISTO: I believe. I believe the sensibility in the government - decision makers. I’m big believer.

GELLERMAN: Before saying goodbye, Christo gives me a book about Over the River. And I take out a photograph of my family taken in New York’s Central Park. It was back in 2005. We went there to see Christo’s last project: The Gates: 75-hundred fabric saffron sheets flapping in the wind, winding through meadows and walkways.

(Photo: Nataly Govorushko)

CHRISTO: Yeah, I will sign that for you.

GELLERMAN: And then, with a special wax pen and a flourish, the artist signs his name: Christo.



[MUSIC: Bill Frisell “Give Me A Holler” from Nashville (Nonesuch Records 1997).]

GELLERMAN: Sometime over the next few weeks, the Bureau of Land Management is expected to finally decide if Over the River gets the go-ahead. If it does, Christo plan to suspend huge panels of shimmering silver fabric along a 42-mile stretch in the Arkansas River could happen in August 2014.



Christo’s Website

Rags Over the Arkansas River


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