The Road Home: On Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Over the River
Enter the New York artist Christo. He wants to drape 5.9 miles of silvery fabric over a 42 mile stretch of the Arkansas River in the Bighorn Sheep Canyon, a project he calls Over the River. He and his late wife Jeanne-Claude, who died of a brain aneurysm in 2009, are known for their large scale wrapping projects such as The Gates, in which they hung 7,503 panels of saffron fabric in New York’s Central Park for two weeks. He is now 77. Because of his age, many think that Over the River, if it happens, would be his last major artwork. He and Jeanne-Claude first dreamed of it in 1985, when they watched a crew lift the cloth with which they wrapped the Pont-Neuf on the Seine. They imagined a cloth hanging over a river, rippling in the wind and illuminating the light and clouds. From the top, the fibers would appear opaque and reflect the sky.
In 2011, 26 years after Christo and Jeanne-Claude first conceived Over the River, the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, which oversees most of the land, approved the project. In response, the citizens group Rags Over the Arkansas River, or ROAR, filed a lawsuit against BLM. ROAR is also suing the Colorado State Parks for allowing the project on land it co-manages with BLM. Christo has put the installation on hold until these cases are settled.
Like most of his projects, Christo has worked on Over the River for decades. Between 1992 and 1994, he, Jeanne-Claude, and two collaborators drove around the Rockies in search of a river. They wanted one with high enough banks to support anchors for the fabric, an east-west orientation to align the fabric with the arc of the sun, a road for installation and viewing, near a major town for the same reasons, and white and calm waters for boating and fishing. Many streams in the Rockies might have fit, but the artists also came here for the headwaters. After 14,000 miles on the road, they settled on six possibilities between Idaho and New Mexico. They made preliminary measurements at each site and decided on the Arkansas.
Over the River is financed entirely by Christo and Jeanne-Claude through the sale of, among other things, their own preparatory drawings for the project. They do not accept any kind of sponsorship as they say that the attached strings would interfere with their artistic freedom. In addition, their works would come at no cost to the host cities. In the fall of 2010, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver exhibited some of these drawings. The canvases are blue and grey in pencil, charcoal, enamel, and wax, works of art in and of themselves. Blue represents sky and water, grey the rocks and roads, and the fabric both, a mediation between earth and sky. Some of the drawings are sketched onto photographs of the landscape, some collaged with technical specifications for the anchors and caissons, topographical studies of the river, and fabric samples. These pieces outline a compelling vision of light and form in the Rockies.
As the project is to be largely on public land, the artists sought permits from an array of public agencies, including the Colorado Department of Wildlife, Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, Chaffee and Fremont Counties, the Colorado Department of Transportation, and BLM. They also held public meetings in the towns along the river, Salida, Cotopaxi, Cañon City, and many more too small to incorporate. The decision ultimately came down to BLM, the highest of these authorities. In 2006, it requested that because of the complexity of the project, the ongoing environmental assessment had to be upgraded to the more comprehensive environmental impact statement, or EIS, a level of study usually done for tunnels and dams. In 2007, the artists submitted a 2,000 page Design and Planning Report to BLM.
In the summer of 2010, a few months after Jeanne-Claude passed away, BLM issued its draft EIS. It identified problems with erosion, river sedimentation, and rock instability. The drilling would create atypical stresses for the wildlife in the canyon, in particular a threatened native bighorn sheep population. The construction would take place along Highway 50, the main road through the canyon, and cause disruptions for the people who live along the river. BLM was also concerned about the durability of the project in the anomalous wind and hail conditions possible in the summer and the threat to public safety in the event of collapse. In 1972, a strong gust had torn down Christo’s Valley Curtain, an orange drape across the Rifle Gap in the central Colorado mountains, and in 1991, high winds toppled one of The Umbrellas, an installation of blue and yellow umbrellas in Japan and southern California, causing injuries and one fatality. The report also assessed seven alternatives, which range from allowing only paid visitors to view the art to reducing it to just over a mile.
After a public comment period, BLM issued its final EIS in July 2011 and the Record of Decision that November, five months later than initially anticipated. While BLM concluded that Over the River would likely have adverse consequences on the river environs and communities, it approved Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s original vision, provided that Christo implements measures to mitigate the impacts. Because the decision came later than scheduled, Christo postponed the viewing period from August 2014 to August 2015.
Christo’s vision for the Arkansas River is provocative. The natural world in its untouched state is not necessarily higher than the human imagination. Over the River would likely make us see the mountains and rivers in a new light. The fabric would realign our perceptions of depth and space. The work may be temporary, but it would live on in our imaginations, subject to the vagaries of memory. In The Gates and The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Christo imposed his interpretations on Central Park and the Seine respectively, but New York and Paris are his homes. And the impact of these two works on the environment and residents were minimal. The locals on the Arkansas River argue that Over the River is antithetical to the ethos of a rural valley and its allure does not justify its destructions and disruptions.
In February 2012, a group of environmental law students at the University of Denver, under the guidance of their professor Mike Harris, filed a federal lawsuit against BLM on behalf of ROAR. They charge that BLM violated environmental laws in the final EIS. They liken Over the River to a mining operation and contend that the agency mischaracterized it as “recreation” and its impact to the river environs as “temporary”. The art, they claim, with its drilling operations to install the anchors and caissons, is actually “akin to a massive resource extraction project”, its effects on the land and its ecosystems irreversible. In their view, the industrial scale of Over the River is not permitted in the land use plans for the area and would unnecessarily degrade the site.
BLM, on behalf of Christo, filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. In July, U.S. District judge John Kane upheld the case. He also put it on hold: a third party not associated with ROAR had filed an appeal against Over the River with the Department of the Interior and Kane would hear the case only after this appeal is resolved. Because of the uncertain timeframe, Christo announced that the project would be indefinitely delayed. In September, Kane ruled that Christo cannot start construction on Over the River until the case is resolved and that he could join BLM as a defendant on it.
ROAR is based in Cañon City. According to the organization’s website, its founder is the local businessman Dan Ainsworth. He started the volunteer fire department in his neighborhood and is a former long distance truck driver. He draws on his experiences fighting wildfires along the Arkansas River and trucking on narrow mountain roads to conclude that Over the River would be an environmental and economic disaster. The other members of the Board of Directors include Ainsworth’s wife (who is also the bookkeeper), a plant ecologist, an oil field worker and ambulance volunteer, an occupational therapist, and a retired geophysicist. The advisors include a fly-fishing guide, a retired Division of Wildlife biologist, and a former National Park Service spokesperson.
ROAR is the most vocal opponent of Over the River. They vow to stop it entirely. Their concerns range from the impact on the bighorn sheep population to river erosion, but their central issue is the traffic on Highway 50 for the duration of the project. They emphasize that it is a three year process of installation, viewing, and removal. Highway 50 is the main road between Salida and Cañon City and the only maintained route through Bighorn Sheep Canyon. The locals use it to access school, work, the grocery store, medical appointments, and their mail. It is also a major truck delivery and ambulance route. The shortest alternative road would add a hundred miles to the journey.
ROAR also charges that contrary to Christo’s claims, the drilling rigs would take up both lanes of the narrow canyon road, perpetuating delays counted in hours instead of minutes. These delays could obstruct the response to wildfires and accidents, with potentially fatal results.
Christo’s response to this criticism focuses on the two-week viewing period, when thousands of visitors are expected to navigate the winding road while looking at the art. He proposes ambulances and helicopters on standby and alternative routes. For the installation and removal, they would work on the road side of the canyon only during the tourist off-season. In an early interview, the artists observed that the federal and state agencies are generally supportive of the project while the locals “hate us”. Jeanne-Claude in fact said that she had no qualms if the art disrupted the locals on the way to trivial matters like work. Some of ROAR’s rhetoric veers towards hyperbole, such as that the project would cause rock instability and thus earthquakes, but their frustrations are summed up in another of their remarks, “Why is there absolutely no mention of the impact on the local population?”
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s oeuvre belongs to the tradition of land and environmental art, a movement that began in the sixties as artists broke out of the museum and gallery system and engaged with public space. Over the River has the monumental scale of architecture and sculpture and the impermanence of gesture. Because the work is evanescent, the land appears to be returned to the same condition, as if the art has never been there. The exhibition catalog describes this opus as “gentle disturbances between earth and sky” and “a dialogue between forethought and memory.” The critic Simon Schama imagines, “Unbroken river surfaces are simultaneously transparent and reflective and the doubling of both those properties in the elevated surface formed by the canopy will make the experience of passing between them akin to an ethereal suspension between the elements.”
That is to say, positive criticism of Over the River tends to exalt the aesthetic experience. Museums and galleries have their own politics, but the space is meant to showcase art. In moving to a public space, however, artists have to also contend with competing local uses, which in this case include that of a narrow mountain highway. Public spaces are also encoded with meanings that may not be apparent to artists who encounter them as outsiders. The Arkansas River is a popular recreational site, and many in Colorado seek nature as a respite from the pressures of work and life. An industrial scale project such as Over the River is anathema to this concept of nature. Jeanne-Claude has said, “We want to create works of art of joy and beauty.” In other words, she viewed the landscape as akin to the white walls of a museum, without history or memory. The locals were invisible to her.
The opposition to Over the River focuses mostly on practical matters, but the underlying sentiment can be read from a river guide’s remark that the project is tantamount to “hanging pornography in a church.” Behind this hyperbole is a largely American belief, stemming from transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, in the sanctity of nature. The Arkansas River valley is surrounded by mountains that hold snow even into the summer, but with its density of communities, abandoned railroad tracks, highways, dams, mine tailings, and recreational outfitters, it is hardly the pristine wilderness that rhapsodists from John Muir to John Denver likened to cathedrals. To the locals, it is home. Their lives and livelihoods depend on the health of the river environs and the local economies. Over the River would disrupt their lives for a good part of three years and when they aired their concerns, Christo and Jeanne-Claude dismissed them. Fairly or not, the residents see the artists as violating the sanctity of their homes.
The question of home cannot be litigated. ROAR’s lawsuit depends instead on technical issues. Whichever way the courts ultimately decide, Over the River raises an exigent question: what transgressions should we permit in the name of art?
Teow Lim Goh lives in Boulder, Colorado. Her essays have appeared in Pilgrimage, The Rumpus, The Lit Pub, and Shadowbox.