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How Christo's 'Walk on Water' forces a shift in perspective

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Stefano Rellandini/Reuters

(Read caption) A woman walks on the installation "The Floating Piers" on Lake Iseo, Italy, by the artist Christo, June 16, 2016. The walkway offers exhibit-goers a chance to walk on water.

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Christo, known as the “wrapper” artist, has long wished to provide the world with the sensation of walking on water.

After the 81-year-old and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, first conceived of the idea about four decades ago, the Bulgarian-born American artist will at last have his chance.

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“Floating Piers” is a 1.9-mile (3 km) walkway, covered in yellow fabric, that connects the village of Sulzano in northern Italy to two islands on Lake Iseo, one of the largest lakes in the Lombardy region. Open from June 18 to July 3, in the walkway will show exhibit-goers the landscape around the lake from a new vantage point.

The project, said Christo, “is all this” — the piers, the lake, the mountains, “with the sun, the rain, the wind, it’s part of the physicality of the project, you have to live it,” he said, according to The New York Times. “It's physical, not virtual," he said, according to Agence France Presse. “You need to walk on it.”

The walkway is composed of 220,000 floating cubes anchored to the floor of the lake that engineers, construction companies, deep-sea divers and even Bulgarian athletes drafted over the past two years. The high-density polyethylene cubes form a 53-foot-wide spine, covered with a waterproof and stain-resistant fabric, according to the Times.

The fabric, in a way, is alive: its color, texture, and movement vary depending on the sun and humidity.   

“Look!” Christo told a Times reporter, as he pointed to a juncture where two pathways joined on the walkway. “You see! It falls in that way so you can see the movement. It’s actually breathing.”

Some have described the sensation of traversing the walkway as like being on the back of a whale. Others have said it’s like standing on a boat.  

“[It] is akin to being on a lightly rocking boat, without feeling wary about suddenly toppling over should a strong wave arrive,” wrote the Times. “Shoes are optional…when wet, the walkway is a little squishy; when sunny, it should feel warm to the toes.”

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Exhibit-goers, expected to number up to 40,000 in one day, can walk from the Italian village to the larger island of Monte Isola and to the isolated island of San Paolo.  

On San Paolo is a home that has been used by monks, naval troops, scientists, diplomats, and artists. Since 1916, it has been the summer residence of the Beretta family, owners of the noted Italian firearms manufacturer, according to The Wall Street Journal. Since the home is 1.2 miles off the shore, the Berettas must row in to shop for groceries or even pick up the morning newspaper.

“I needed to jump on a boat and go to the other island to get it,” said Umberta Gnutti Beretta.  

This restrained existence intrigued Christo.

“I was impressed by the fact that some people who worked or lived on one of the islands were not able to move in other ways if not through boats. I wanted to give them the chance to walk,” he said. “The project is about direction.”

Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, have repeatedly forced their audiences to reconsider how they interact with their surroundings. The couple wrapped the Reichstag, or German parliament, in a giant piece of white fabric, surrounded islands in Biscayne Bay in Miami with a fluorescent pink fabric, and erected saffron-colored gates in New York City's Central Park.  

Everyone that is familiar with Christo knows his artwork is not meant to last. The walkway will be dismantled after the exhibit closes in July. But The Christian Science Monitor’s Francine Kiefer said the ephemeral nature of Christo’s installations can have a lasting impact on you.

Sometimes, my husband gives me a little lecture about appreciating the fleeting nature of something, such as a blooming dogwood tree or a dusting of fresh snow. You can't always own a thing, or hold on to it, he reminds me.

Intellectually, I know he's right. But when Christo said essentially the same thing in a documentary I saw this summer, it finally sunk in. The artist himself was reassuring me of beauty in the unexpected encounter with something that won't, to the physical eye, last.


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