Environmental Art or Vandalism? Christo and Jean-Claude sued to stop their latest project

Planning Drawings for "Over The River"

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are possibly the best known among those artists who work outside of the gallery in urban and rural environments. Many of their projects involve wrapping stuff in fabric – be it the Reichstag in Berlin, the Kunsthalle in Bern, a medieval tower in Spoleto, etc. Their latest project titled “Over The River” is a plan to suspend 5.9 miles of silvery fabric over the Arkansas River in Colorado. Nearing launch, the project has been thrown into some disarray by a the filing of a lawsuit to stop the project. A group named “Rags Over Arkansas River” (ROAR) claim that the project will cause significant environmental damage and that the Environmental Impact Assessment of the proposed project was flawed.

This lawsuit crystallizes a conflict I have always felt about the idea of ‘land art’ or so-called ‘environmental art’ – is it art that calls our attention to environmental issues or is it vandalism – damaging the environment that it purports to be trying to protect. The answer is, as always, not straightforward. Christo and Jean-Claude care about the environment. They say of this project: “The artists bring to Over The River a documented and unwavering commitment to conservation and are dedicated to avoiding or minimizing all potential impacts related to noise, vegetation, air quality and water quality during the construction and removal phases, as well as during the two-week viewing period. In fact, the artists altered their artistic design, installation schedule and the viewing period to be sensitive to wildlife and the environment.” Supporters will quote this as evidence of their commitment. Cynics will compare this statement to almost identical statements made by large corporations involved in mining, drilling and other natural resource intensive industries.

For me, the questions here are different – What is this for? and What does it say about our relationship to the Land?

The project has significant local support primarily because “the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) projected that Over The River will bring a total of 416,000 visitors to the Arkansas River Valley, including 344,000 visitors during the two week exhibition period and 72,000 visitors during installation and removal combined.  The BLM also estimates that Over The River will generate more than $121 million in total economic output throughout Colorado.” In this context, what do projects such as this end up telling us about our relationship to the Land? Do they lead us to respect the land and our environment and feel a closer connection to it in some way – the purpose, I would argue, of any art that purports to label itself ‘environmental’? Or do they further embed the idea of the land as ‘exploitable product’ – now wrapped up nicely so that it becomes an ephemeral tourist attraction generating economic activity? And if it’s the latter, then are the temporary and relatively gentle environmental disturbances and uplifting sensations of works of art such as these not a better way of ‘exploiting the land’ than other alternatives?

For most of their work, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have limited themselves to urban environments where there is little or no potential for environmental damage. However, when they venture on to rural or relatively “unspoilt” landscapes such as their work to surround islands in Biscayne Bay (below) and others, then this takes us into the ambiguous territory of land art. Here we run into the debate as to whether any form of environmental damage is reasonable for artists who claim to have an interest in protecting the environment. But then, which artist – whatever the medium and whether in the gallery or elsewhere – can create art without using resources and therefore, in some way, exploiting the natural environment?

4 Comments

  1. “The ambiguous territory of land art” is right – there are many terms that refer to various means of artists and viewers engaging with land. Land art is not to be confused with environmental art, or we would be blurring being in the environment with concerns for it.

    Christo and Jeane-Claude’s roots lie in the early movement of Land Art where the landscape was a giant ‘canvas’ so to speak, in which to create large scale, sometimes public, works. The land had an appeal, less for its environmental issues, more for its potential of anti commodity. This provided a break from what artists saw as the excessive marketing of art works in urban galleries and museums. A landscape allowed a freedom from these constraints. Ironically, many of these works return to some form of commodification. The early Land Art movement was not particularly concerned with land issues as we may view them today. An example of Land art from the onset of this movement, is, Robert Smithson’s 1969 works Asphalt Rundown in Rome, Glue Pour in Vancouver and Concrete Pour in Chicago. Concerns with site, scale and material – yes, negatively impacting the land, probably not.

    While Christo and Jeane Claude’s works certainly engage themselves and the viewers in the landscape, I have never thought of their work as ecologically based. The works use the environment as site. After aligning hundreds of saffron flags, wrapping or otherwise altering an environment, the artists intend to return the site to its original state. By doing so, and having the intervention a specific time period, this allows viewers a renewed perception of the site – be in the Reichstag, Central Park or the Pont Neuf, as if seeing it refreshed and with new eyes.

    Christo’s large-scale works may have increased their concerns with environmental impact as the public’s need for addressing this has. Thanks to ROAR and your article, Joe, for bringing this to light.

  2. Hi Suzy. Thanks for your comment. You are right that land art started out just as you describe and has a different heritage from art that is concerned with environmental activism. However, many texts on ‘land art’ now seem to have morphed its title into ‘environmental art’ and many land artists are becoming concerned with environmental issues. Christo and Jeanne-Claude describe themselves as environmental artists “because they do many works in Cities, in Urban environments, and also in Rural Environments but NEVER in deserted places, and always sites already prepared and used by people, managed by human beings for human beings. Therefore they are not “Land Art” either.This is their own description about themselves though their meaning is not necessarily totally clear to me. They also claim to “make the public aware of the environment, through the art work“. Like you I never though of their work as founded on environmental activism, but, who knows, maybe that is its strength in that it may draw attention to the environment without being preachy about it.

  3. I thank you so much for this point of view…and I read…We put labels to every action…”envirnomental activism”…lets say responsible to at least watch what we choose to create.As artist we cannot afford to promote this kind of product…it is a waste and it is obscene…cover a river with plastic?? such a sad and dead end choice..
    we need to change O U R minds…it is U R G E NT how we need to rescue the world from OUR own hands!! thank you again

  4. Art or vandalism you ask?

    9000 six inch diameter holes drilled up to 30 feet into the rugged rocky banks of the Arkansas River doesn’t sound especially environmentally friendly to me. No matter what effort is made to plug them, evidence of these holes will be there for centuries if not millenia.

    Vandalism. No doubt about it.

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