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Decades after Sonoma ‘Running Fence,’ Christo still making art — and waves

Special to SF Public Press
 — Nov 24 2010 - 11:23am

Bureaucracy has once again issued a daunting challenge to the art of Christo, this time “Over the River,” his proposed temporary installation of shimmering fabric across the Arkansas River in Colorado. The battle, waged this summer, mirrors one that arose just across the Golden Gate Bridge in the early 1970s, when Christo and his French wife/collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, fought government and naysayers to create “Running Fence.” 

For two weeks in 1976, the 18-foot-high, 25-mile-long nylon curtain ran over the Sonoma hills and plunged into the Marin surf. The Smithsonian called it “the single most important work of art in the latter half of the 20th century.”

“Running Fence” required the first environmental impact statement for a work of art.  But the 450-page document from the 1970s looks like a pamphlet next to the paperwork already generated for “Over the River.”

It’s a battle royale. In one corner stands the renowned Bulgarian-born artist, itching to suspend panels of luminous fabric over a Rocky Mountain river gorge for two summer weeks, three years from now at the earliest. In the other corner, the federal Bureau of Land Management wields a 1,400-page draft environmental impact statement listing all the problems with Christo’s plan. Released in July, it's a counterpunch to the 2,029-page proposal the artist submitted in May 2007.

Christo's plan calls for 5.9 miles of  "silvery, luminous fabric panels to be suspended high above" a 40-mile stretch of the river between Salida and Cañon City in south-central Colorado. Rafters will drift under the translucent panels, which from above will look like a silvery ribbon echoing the winding river.  The panels “will be suspended at eight distinct areas of the river that were selected by the artists for their aesthetic merits and technical viability.”

The environmental impact statement is all about that ‘technical viability.” The publication of the draft began a 60-day public comment period that lasted through mid-September.  The Bureau of Land Managment plans to issue a final report in February and announce its decision in April next year.

DEFYING LONG ODDS

At first glance, the environmental impact statement — with its detailed look at how the installation would negatively affect everything from highway traffic to bighorn sheep to bats — appears to trump an artwork that doesn’t yet exist. Its figures and conclusions are the opposition’s ammunition, as was the case a generation ago in Northern California.

But Christo has bucked long odds his entire life.

For half a century, he and Jeanne-Claude did the seemingly impossible to realize their epic outdoor installations. Their fierce dance of bringing-into-existence delivered to the world some of the most surprising and memorable large-scale artworks in modern history. They absorbed the delays and mistrust and opposition and kept offering explanations, adjustments and assurances that the world would not end if they were allowed to “borrow space and create gentle disturbances for a couple of days,” as Christo put it.

Last fall, Jeanne-Claude died suddenly, leaving Christo to complete and create art without the woman often seen as the voice of the duo.

To ponder the future of “Over the River,” it’s useful to look to the past. The 2010 documentary “The Running Fence Revisited,” directed by German-born Wolfram Hissen, provides a reminder of the high-stakes, high-profile struggle that is an essential component in all of the artists' work.

Part of a recently concluded exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (“Remembering the 'Running Fence'”) that will soon tour nationally, the 47-minute film can also be seen on its own. The film had its Northern California premier in June, and Hissen is working on a longer version due to screen at the Sonoma International Film Festival in April 2011. A preview is available on YouTube. It’s also worth watching the evocative 1978 film shot during the making of the project, “Running Fence,” by brothers David and Albert Maysles of “Gimme Shelter” fame.

'FENCE' RAN LIKE PALE WILDFIRE

Hissen, who has documented the work of Jeanne-Claude and Christo for decades, filmed the artists’ 2009 return to the hills over which their fence ran like pale wildfire.
“The ‘Fence’ is not the work of art," Christo said. Instead, it was how the fence interacted with the landscape that made the art, how the snaking curtain “underlined and energized the invisible topography.”

In flickering, silent Super 8 clips folded into Hissen’s “The 'Running Fence' Revisited,” you can almost feel the wind as it catches the 2,050 panels of fabric (2,222,222 square feet) like sails on a landlocked ship, and hear the clanking of the 350,000 hooks and 90 miles of steel cable against the 2,050 steel poles holding the curtain aloft.
"The fence came to life as it undulated with changing light and wind, as if it were breathing,” the Smithsonian writes.

As interviews in “The Running Fence Revisited” make clear, it still looms large for people who  saw the creation, or even just heard about it or saw it on film.
“Once you've seen the 'Fence,'" says Jeannie Shulz, widow of  "Peanuts" creator Charles Shulz, "you never look at the hills here in the same way."
Hissen’s film also reminds us that apparent roadblocks are actually an integral part of Christo's artwork.

'OVER THE RIVER' CONTROVERSY

In Hissen’s 2007 documentary “On the Way to ‘Over the River,’” we learn that the artists expected that creation, proposed in 1993, would happen long before “The Gates,” conceived in 1979 for New York’s Central Park. What moved “The Gates” to the top of their list? Their friend Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor in 2001. Suddenly, much of the official resistance melted away. In February 2005, for two weeks, "The Gates" emerged in the wintry park — 7,503 saffron-colored banners.
“Over the River” is generating no more or less controversy than the artists’ other projects.

During the commenting period, debate was fierce. As is his habit, Christo sat in on town meetings. Some opponents stood up to say the project would increase traffic so much that ambulances wouldn’t be able to make it through. Others worried that the project would damage the environment and stress wildlife. Rafting guide Ben Goodin declared that "hanging rags over the river is the same as hanging pornography in a church." That imagery spawned Rags Over the Arkansas River (ROAR), which urges people to help “prevent this proposed destruction of the canyon.”

There were no opposition web sites in the early 1970s when Jeanne-Claude and Christo were championing the “Running Fence,” but resistance was just as fierce. What were these foreigners up to? Why were they spending millions of dollars on something that had no use and would last for only two weeks?  The word went out to the local ranchers, whose permission was needed for the artwork to wend through their property. Their response: Tell him we build our own goddamned fences.

'YOU ARE ALL PART OF MY ART'

It wasn’t just the landscape that was part of the art: so were the people pulled into the vortex of this years-long project. At a contentious meeting in Marin, Christo took the microphone late in the evening. Gesturing to include all the sides of the debate, he said, “Like it or not, you are all part of my art.”

The permitting process took 3½ years and included 18 public hearings, three sessions in the Superior Court of California and the mammoth environmental-impact report. And Jeanne-Claude was crucial to the outcome.

"She had a way with those ranchers — and their wives," said journalist Gaye LeBaron, who covered the permitting process for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.  The ranchers and their families may have recognized something familiar in these foreign-born artists. Says LeBaron, "It was Yankee ingenuity run through a French lady and a Bulgarian man."

But will the people of Colorado want to be part of Christo’s new artwork? How long will he have to fight? He is 75.

Christo has supporters. Some point out that the artists’ 1972 project, "Valley Curtain," in Rifle Gap, Colo.,  employed a small army and put that remote area on the international art map.  And some, like local gallery owner Jack Chivvis, point out that “whatever happens, he forced us to see that canyon in a whole different way. He's made us think about why we love the river and what makes it beautiful.”

'RUNNING FENCE' IS ABOUT PLEASURE

With so much controversy and opposition, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the artists have always tried to make something beautiful. The work is really about pleasure, in various forms:

• Surprise  — what the Maysles brothers called the “Huh?” factor, as in, “How can they string a curtain of rejected airbag material for 25 miles?”
• Sensuality — fabric, their favored material, is draped, wrapped, stretched, and then made to billow and soar.
• Delight — combining the "Huh?"’with the "Wow!" when the work is finished.

It’s how their work moves and delights people — not just critics, but the rank-and-file of every country — that makes the projects so successful. A friend endured a long ride with a “sweaty guy dressed in too much polyester” to see the 1978 “Wrapped Walkways” in Kansas City. “To stand there and see the walkways draped in yellow-orange,” she said. “It was like ‘What’s this?’ and then an almost immediate, “Oh, YEAH.”

The naysayers in Colorado should watch the “Running Fence Revisited” to see the awe that long-gone fence still inspires. It’s as if the “Fence” is as much of a force in it absence as it was in it presence, like a loved one gone away but held firmly in the heart.

"Every time I go over the Cotati grade," says LeBaron, "I still see it."