Bureaucracy Meets Art, Delighting ChristoViews on BG | July 17, 2010, Saturday // 13:55| views
Christo and his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, who died in November, with a rendering of “Over the River” in February 2009. Photo by www.nytimes.com
By KIRK JOHNSON
New York Times
DENVER — Assessing a work of art using in-depth technical analysis sounds a bit like writing a scholarly treatise about a joke. If you peer inside too deeply, armed with numbers and equations, does “Mona Lisa” still dazzle? And is “A man walks into a bar...” still funny?
But that, in a nutshell, is the question that faces the artist Christo and a giant federal agency called the Bureau of Land Management. On Friday, the bureau issued what may be the first ever draft environmental impact statement purely about art — specifically a project called “Over the River,” which Christo has proposed building along a stretch of the Arkansas River in southern Colorado.
The project involves laying fabric panels along 42.4 miles of the river. The environmental review analyzed that notion to its nub — from the projected size of the crowds, to the specific spots for anchoring fabric pieces, to what the document described as “temporal considerations,” specifically the timing of the phases of construction and operation of the artwork.
Christo, whose outsize environmental constructions have made him an internationally known, but not always well-understood, figure in the art world for decades, expressed delight. An environmental assessment, he said in a telephone interview, and the struggle to get permission to make his art are in fact part of the artistic vision itself for “Over the River.”
Art meets bureaucracy, for art’s sake.
“The identity of our project is built in the permitting process,” he said. “We were banging our heads and asking to have an environmental impact statement for such a long time.”
He mentioned that the environmental impact statement is a more rigorous examination than a mere environmental review, adding that oil companies generally prefer the latter when their proposed projects are considered.
The bureau’s report — which runs to four volumes — is formally a draft environmental impact statement. It concludes that the project would have consequences for the landscape and communities between the towns of Salida and Cañon City, where the fabric swaths would be installed.
So, as always, the study’s authors offered up some helpful suggestions. Or as the report said: “Mitigation measures were identified to minimize or offset potential adverse impacts.”
How about, for example, making “Over the River” a little smaller, or maybe a lot smaller?
Several options suggested by the government would reduce the length of fully covered sections of the river from 5.9 miles, in Christo’s vision, to either 4.8 miles, 4.1 miles or 1.4 miles.
Want still more art criticism? How about Appendix B, titled “Alternatives Development Technical Support Document?” or Appendix E, “Incident Frequency Study?”
Of course, if any artist could or should ever be the subject of large-scale dissection about incident frequencies or landscape level impacts, it is probably Christo. Modest parlor pieces that do not make waves — or cannot be viewed from a distance — have never been his interest.
His pieces are also designed to be temporary and fleeting. He wrapped Berlin’s Reichstag with silver fabric for a time, and gave islands off the coast of Florida a cloth beach, but for only a few turns of the tide. He installed saffron-colored flags in a meandering course through in Central Park.
But as critics and supporters alike have said of “Over the River,” which would be in place for two weeks, this time the setting is very different. The deep-cut gorges and canyons of the Arkansas River where Christo hopes to build the project speak to the deep time processes of geology and creation. The area is also a key habitat for bighorn sheep, raptor and fish.
Some opponents of the project, led by a Colorado group called Rags Over the Arkansas River, have scathingly dismissed Christo’s vision — in general and in detail — as pompous pseudo-art. On its Web site, the group argues that the impact would also be much more lasting than the proposed timetable of three years for construction, viewing and removal. A spokeswoman for the group said Friday that no one had had a chance to study the review.
One Colorado resident who has worked with Christo before said she did not want to venture an opinion about “Over the River,” or indeed about Christo’s art in general.
“He doesn’t work in the mainstream,” said the resident, Carol Wilson, who, with her husband, Lloyd, rented property to Christo in Colorado in the early 1970s for a project called “Valley Curtain.”
But Ms. Wilson said that in the end, the experience with “Valley Curtain,” had been positive, that she and her husband would do it all again, and that she thinks many people in the small town of Rifle, where the project was installed, felt the same.
“At first they thought he was in left field,” she said. “But then they realized they could get some tourist money, and it put Rifle on the map.”
Sarah Wheaton contributed reporting from New York.
*Christo was born Hristo Vladimirov Yavachev in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, on June 13, 1935.
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