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Arts Walking on water with international artist of mystery Christo

Walking on Water is an uncensored look into the artistic process and personal relationships of Christo, an artist known for his large-scale installations.

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The artist Christo sports a head of hair fluffed out like a Q-tip that’s been in your travel kit too long, a wardrobe of chic-wrinkly cotton (I recall a drapey scarf) and a will of iron. During the 22 minutes we spent together in a bar during last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I managed to ask him two questions; the rest was his stream-of-consciousness artist-speak about financing, anchors, the beauty of ephemerality and his devotion to packing tape. It was a display in microcosm of the 83-year-old’s headlong drive to create, indistinguishable from ego, and the tenacity that enables him to wrest permission for and build his temporary, massive environmental projects.

"Enormous things cannot be canned. The energy cannot be canned,” he says, in English thickly accented with his native Bulgarian. (He was born Christo Javacheff in Gabrovo.) His words themselves don’t have a moment to waste; they tumble out of him like rocks down a cliffside. “The projects are designed to be temporary. Like our lives. It can’t be routine. The blooming is only a few days. It’s very fresh.”

I’ve experienced two of Christo’s installations: 1991’s Umbrellas, in which 1,760 yellow umbrellas unfurled at the Tejon Ranch north of Los Angeles, along with 1,340 blue ones in Ibaraki, Japan; and 2005’s The Gates – 7,503 metal-framed gates with saffron fabric that billowed through Manhattan’s Central Park. I start to tell him what they meant to me, how much I loved inhabiting his altered landscapes and how I kept seeing his yellow umbrellas dotting the brown L.A. hills long after they were gone. He does not care.

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“These projects cannot be bought,” he continues seamlessly. “They’re not owned by me. It’s why I don’t charge tickets. Because freedom cannot be bought. This is why you have a million people running to see it, because tomorrow it will be gone. All that urgency to be present at something that will not stay creates a different type of relation to the space.”

As a young artist, Christo escaped from Czechoslovakia on a supply train to Austria; perhaps this explains why so many of his pieces are about movement, bridges, gates. (He also wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin, but in 1995, after Germany was reunited.)

For his latest project, 2016’s Floating Piers, Christo covered a three-kilometre strip of interlocking plastic cubes in dahlia-yellow fabric, and set it bobbing for 16 days in June and July, in Italy’s Lake Iseo (which, incidentally, is probably the background landscape of the Mona Lisa). Attendees strolled across the surface of the lake and around two islands, experiencing a sensation Christo called “very sexy, like walking on a waterbed.” Half a million people were expected; 1.2 million showed up. The selfies were legion.

As he did with many of his prior installations – including 1977’s Running Fence, a 5.5-metre-high curtain of white fabric stretched across 40 km of northern California hills; and 1985’s Pont Neuf, in which he wrapped the Parisian bridge in 40,000 square metres of sand-coloured fabric – Christo commissioned a documentary about Floating Piers. Called Walking on Water, it’s directed by Andrey Paounov, who wrangled 750 hours of footage into a story that begins 97 days before the opening and continues through the dismantling. It opens in Toronto this week.

For the first time since the passing of his wife and partner, Jeanne-Claude, Christo sets out to realize The Floating Piers, a project they conceived together many years before.

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"I was always conscious that the projects should have some record after the precious days of existence and exhibition,” Christo says. “We have books and documents, but the films are the most important parts to translate the journey of the project before it exists physically, to the moving images of the real stuff. Not some art historian talking.”

Walking on Water features fascinating details about the piers themselves: 200,000 polyethylene cubes held together with giant plastic screws; covered in 70,000 square metres of fabric woven in Germany; secured by 95 hidden anchors, 5,000 tons apiece, sunk 700 feet deep. It explains how Christo and his late wife and artistic partner, Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon (she died in 2009), fought for decades to install their pieces – they tried unsuccessfully to do Floating Piers in Japan and Argentina – and always paid for them themselves, with sketches, renderings and sculptures created before the fact. Floating Piers cost US$20-million, financed by 40 works of art.

It shows crews and crowds braving whipping winds and sloshing water. At one point, attendees are stranded on the islands overnight. Authorities pass out gold foil blankets, whose crinkly sheen adds a new element of otherworldly beauty. There are clash-of-titans disputes between Christo the visionary and Vladimir Yavachev, his nephew and more practical-minded project manager. “This is horror story!” Christo yells. “It’s not patience, it’s passion!”

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And there are those selfies. Walking on Water is the first Christo film in the age of social media. Prior docs captured precious images; now we’re drowning in images. We watch as hordes of people document their experience non-stop – a third of whom have brought their own drones. In one of my two questions, I ask how Christo feels about that.

“I can’t think about this,” he replies. “People filming themselves in the museum with the Mona Lisa. That is society now. It’s not a question to like or not like, it’s the reality. I show the real thing. It happened. I’m very open to anything. Anything can be part of the work of art, if it happened. This is why the work is always bigger. Everything is an open dimension.”

The risks are also real. Valley Curtain, hung in Colorado in 1992, only lasted 28 hours before being shredded by storms. Two people were killed in accidents at Umbrellas. So when Floating Piers is swamped by crowds, we see Christo temporarily shut it down.

"I am an extremely stubborn man,” Christo goes on. “We only did 23 projects. I am so precise. I insisted the piers would have no rail. I said, ‘No rail or no project.’ This is a miracle. I am ready to cancel if something happens. I know there will be something so unpredictable – I’m ready to take the risk. I accept anything. That is the exciting part. That is the real creative process. You’re not controlling. You’re not a supreme master. I only create possibilities for things to happen in any direction.”

Yet Christo is currently at work on his only project that is intended to stay put: Mastaba (Al Gharbia), 400,000 oil barrels stacked in a trapezoid, which will rise from the desert 100 miles from Abu Dhabi. Does he finally want a permanent record, because he fears this project may be his last? Or does he have no intention of dying – because if anyone could unhand the scythe from Death himself, it would be Christo?

I never get to ask. Instead, I mention the doc’s final scene, in which Christo painstakingly winds plastic filament around his suitcase and seals it with miles of tape. (The man cannot stop wrapping things.) For the first time in our encounter, he laughs – or rather, he dissolves into giggles.

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"Yes, I travel with that filament and tape my suitcase, yes,” he says. “Everyone on the crew knows I will always have tape.”

Walking on Water opens May 17 for a limited run at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

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