Art

The Extreme Measures Christo Took to Realize “The Floating Piers”

Christo walks on his piece The Floating Piers, Sulzano, Italy, 2016. Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images.

Christo walks on his piece The Floating Piers, Sulzano, Italy, 2016. Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images.

In 2016, realized an artistic vision he’d first dreamed up in 1970: simulating the act of walking on water. When he opened his elegant execution, entitled The Floating Piers, crowds converged on the gold fabric–sheathed walkways that extended 3 kilometers into Italy’s Lake Iseo, connecting the islands of San Paolo and Monte Isola to mainland Sulzano. For 16 days, audiences walked over the piers and watched the hues of the installation—and the lake itself—change as daylight waxed and waned.
This tranquil, near-mystical experience, of course, belied the years of intensive work that Christo and his team required to finish the piece. Challenges ranged from permits to weather conditions, manpower to personality clashes. A new documentary by Bulgarian director Andrey Paounov, Walking on Water, documents the artist’s angst and joy as he encounters setbacks and sees his ambitions come to fruition.
One of the most difficult aspects of completing the project, Christo said in the documentary, was “finding water.” Back in 1970, he and his artistic (and marital) partner —who passed away in 2009—attempted to erect The Floating Piers at Río de la Plata, in Argentina. The work aligned with one of their greatest interests: the connection between land and sea. They were ultimately unable to secure permissions.
The pair tried again, in Japan’s Tokyo Bay, but ran into problems with the government. The issues stemmed from Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s insistence on artistic autonomy. They refused to settle for a site where they wouldn’t have complete artistic control: “If things don’t happen our way, we don’t do the project,” Christo said of his method.
Paounov captured an early meeting in Italy for The Floating Piers at the Brescia Palace of Prefecture, in which Italian bureaucrats sit around a table and discuss the project. The scene makes it apparent that such large-scale artmaking depends on administrative favor.
Still from  Walking on Water.  Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Still from Walking on Water. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Working on any land, of course, requires permits. And, as Christo says, “everything in the world belongs to somebody.” Wherever he decided to install The Floating Piers, he’d need to pay rent. Ultimately, he settled on a northern Italian lake because of ease and familiarity. He’d long vacationed in Italy with Jeanne-Claude, so he was comfortable with the area. Additionally, the Italian government was unusually lax about building restrictions. Elsewhere, for safety reasons, Christo would have needed to erect barriers on either side of the piers—a dealbreaker for him, as he believed they’d ruin his artwork’s magic. The Italians, however, didn’t care.
In 2014, Christo began coordinating the details and hiring the staff that would help him realize The Floating Piers. His team grew to include lawyers, engineers, and a variety of other professional people—a group akin to what is needed for erecting buildings or bridges. Christo considers the project closer to architecture than to sculpture. He even built the piece to last; it was his conceptual choice—and pocketbook—that made it only temporary.
Renting the water itself, and the medieval town around which the piers wrapped, cost $170,000. But ultimately, Christo paid nearly $17 million of his own money to fund The Floating Piers. He used profits from sales of his previous work.
Still from Walking on Water.  Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Still from Walking on Water. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

To create the architecture for the piers, Christo used 220,000 individual polyethylene cubes, connected by special screws. Paounov captured the crew airlifting supplies to workers on the in-progress dock via helicopter. The cubes floated atop more than 190 concrete slabs, which extended to the lake’s bottom; according to Christo, the water’s depth could reach about 300 feet.
As the team began sending the cubes into the water, they also had to be mindful of weather: During storms, they couldn’t work due to possible electrocutions. At one point during a downpour, rescue boats were deployed to safely return workers from the in-progress piers to the mainland. And one day, while walking around the piers in rain boots, Christo tripped and cut his forehead; Paounov captured an associate bandaging the aging artist’s head. Artmaking at this monumental scale, the film suggests, is a dangerous endeavor.
Even after The Floating Piers opened to visitors, challenges still abounded. When the crowds grew larger than expected, workers became angry. Paounov shows a tense confrontation and emergency meeting as 55,000 people showed up on the first day, instead of the estimated 45,000.
Still from  Walking on Water.  Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Still from Walking on Water. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

During the 16 days of its existence—Christo and his team recycled all the materials afterwards—an estimated 1.5 million people visited The Floating Piers. They owed their enchantment to Christo’s extreme measures and unwavering devotion.
Walking on Water captures the artist speaking to a group of schoolchildren, explaining how he achieves such intensive ends, in project after project. “It’s not patience, it’s passion,” he explained. Christo implies that he has no choice but to see the world for all its aesthetic potential. When you’re an artist, he continued, “you’re all the time [an] artist. There’s no moment that you’re not [an] artist.”
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.