New York-based installation artist Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude have been realizing their monumental visions for decades; they wrapped a section of Australian coastline with fabric in 1969 and did the same to Paris’ Pont Neuf in 1984 and Berlin’s Reichstag in 1995. In 2005, they dotted the paths of Central Park with over 7,500 fabric gates. Monday, after 18 years of planning and negotiation, Christo received the go-ahead from the Bureau of Land Management to begin construction on 5.9 miles of fabric canopies to be placed over sections of 42 miles of the Arkansas River in Colorado. The project, called “Over the River,” still needs a few local approvals, but this one marks a major step forward after an environmental impact evaluation by the federal government.
Proponents, including Colorado native and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, cite the potential $121 million windfall from tourism to the installation, which is to be on view for a few weeks possibly as early as 2014. Opponents, including a local group called ROAR (Rags Over the Arkansas River), say that the project will harm the local fishing industry, spur traffic problems, and negatively impact the local bighorn sheep population. A biting editorial in the Denver Post stated that, “in our minds, draping fabric over the area would be akin to putting lipstick on a toddler and entering her in a pageant.”
The artist duo has long seen the negotiation process surrounding their works as part of the art itself. “Every artist in the world likes his or her work to make people think. Imagine how many people were thinking, how many professionals were thinking and writing in preparing that environmental impact statement,” Christo said after the release of Monday’s decision. A long period of negotiation and conversation has preceded many of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s works; the Central Park gates, for instance, were unveiled 26 years after their original conception.
The dialogue surrounding “Over the River” demonstrates the artists’ continued ability to provoke local and national engagement over art and the environment, which is never unproductive. The fact that tourism and money are central to the debate in this instance is an unfortunate reality, but the Arkansas River installation has the potential to stand apart from Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s oeuvre and other American western land art pieces. Visitors will be able to experience it from both the land above and in rafts below. Further, the work’s temporary nature prevents it from falling into disrepair or causing a major environmental impact. Regardless, a work of epic proportions is in store.