“Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Surrounded Islands . . . A Documentary Exhibition”
“Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Surrounded Islands . . . A Documentary Exhibition” at the Perez Art Museum in Miami, tells the story of a massive installation created by the artists Christo and Jeane-Claude in 1983. Although the concept underlying the installation was quite simple, the exhibition documents the complexity and difficulties faced by the artists in making it a reality.
Christo and Jeanne Claude are known for their environmental installations done on a massive scale. For example, in 1995, the two artists collaborated in wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin with polypropylene. Although these installations were only temporary, they were always controversial.
Born in Bulgaria, Christo first studied art at the Sofia Academy. After escaping from behind the Iron Curtain, he studied in Vienna and then worked as an artist in Paris. It was there that he met and married Jeanne-Claude. She had been born in Morocco but was from a French family. The two began to work on art projects together, although until 1994, the various installations were only publicly credited to Christo. Based in New York, they continued to work together until her death in 2009.
In 1980, Jan van der Marck, director of Miami's Center for the Fine Arts (the predecessor of the Perez Art Museum) approached Christo and Jeanne-Claude in hopes of interesting them in creating an installation in Miami. While the artists were being shown around the city, they became interested in a chain of islands in Biscayne Bay that had been created in the 1920s during the construction of the Intracoastal Waterway. These uninhabited islands lie in a line just off of the city of Miami.
The artists' concept was to surround these 11 islands with pink fabric. As usual, this would not be a permanent installation but rather would be in place for just under two weeks. They began working on a series of drawings to illustrate the concept.
Making this concept a reality was no simple matter. First, permission was needed from various city, state and federal agencies. Public hearings had to be held. Restrictions were imposed. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers specified that the installation would have to be done outside of Miami's hurricane season.
Environmental issues had to be dealt with. Tests were done to study the effect covering a portion of Biscayne Bay with fabric would have on the seagrass. The effect on the bird population and migratory birds had to be considered. A test was done at Sea World to see how manatees would react to a fabric covering. Hearings were held before the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation. Although it approved the project, there was also a private lawsuit in federal court over the potential environmental impact.
Then there were the problems associated with physically surrounding the islands with fabric. Several different fabrics were considered and tested. In the end, 6.5 million square feet of pink polypropylene were purchased from a German manufacturer for $180 million. The fabric would be stretched between 305 Styrofoam booms and anchored to the seabed - - all of which had to be tested and fabricated.
A warehouse had to be rented for the cutting and sewing of the fabric. A five-acre portion of the Interama Oleta River State Recreation Area was rented for the construction and launching of the installation. Nearly 500 workers were hired to work on the installation.
The exhibition at the Perez documents the story of this installation. Included are the artists' conceptual drawings and photographs, not only of the completed installation but of the various events that took place along the way. Also included in the exhibition is some of the material that was used in the installation.
Besides being an interesting story, the exhibition provokes questions about the installation itself. Chief among these is what is the point of such an installation? According to Christo, these installations do not have a message beyond their aesthetic impact. They are meant to be beautiful and to cause people to see familiar landscapes in new ways. As the Perez exhibition documents, the Surrounded lslands installation certainly provoked a great deal of thought in Miami about a series of islands that had been largely ignored by everyone prior to the installation.
A related question is whether it was worthwhile. This was a massive project and involved a not insignificant expense, not only in terms of the material costs but in the cost of the time spent by the various private parties and governmental agencies. Wouldn't it have been better to expend these resources on something more permanent? However, the same criticism can be leveled at a performance of a symphony or of a live play. Such works only exist temporarily. The expense of such temporary art has to be weighed against value of stimulating ideas and emotions. In the end, whether it is worthwhile is a matter of circumstance and the perception of the individual viewer.
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Above and below: Scenes from the exhibition at the Perez Art Museum.
Art review -Perez Art Museum - “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Surrounded Islands . . . A Documentary Exhibition”