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?