Walking on Water, directed by Andrey Paounov, is a new documentary about the latest exhibit / production by Christo, the renowned installation artist who transforms environments into experiential artwork, on an epic scale. The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, was acquired by Kino Lorber and is getting a theatrical run in the U.S. this spring (beginning this weekend at Film Forum in NYC). Helen Highly Recommends you see it – in a theater, ideally, on as large a screen as possible. Walking on Water chronicles Christo’s magnificent 2016 project, “Floating Piers,” in which he laid out a three-kilometer-long, buoyant, fabric-wrapped path across Lake Iseo in northern Italy, designed to let people stroll across the gently undulating orange surface. (It is orange, or golden yellow, or “saffron,” as Christo insists.) In the film, we see the artist’s sometimes-cantankerous sometimes-charming personality do battle with technology, bureaucracy, corruption and the elements, resulting in an installation that is spectacularly beautiful and a documentary that captures the chaos of creation.
It’s important to note that, despite what has been reported elsewhere, the film’s title, Walking on Water, does not refer to the floating piers in the project. Director Paounov is the one who named the film, independently from Christo, and he says that it refers to what he learned from his “experience of working with Christo” – Christo’s way of being an artist and handling the work. It’s about the creative endeavor – “the journey.” Paounov says:
In the film, I tried to translate this experience and invite the audience to walk on water with Christo.
The Enigma of Christo
I am a Christo fan. I was thrilled to be in New York in February 2005 to see “The Gates” – 7,503 saffron-colored free-hanging-fabric panels installed along 23 miles of pathways in Central Park, which seemed “like a golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees,” if you listen to Christo describe it. Some New Yorkers complained that the flowing drapes of the installation, which bragged of using 2/3 of the amount of steel used to build the Eiffel Tower, was an irritation to bikers. Others said it looked like a Halloween parade and decried the “claptrap” of Christo’s doggedness in describing the fabric as “saffron” when it appeared to the casual observer as clearly orange.
On the Subject of Saffron: The controversy of Christo naming his often-used orange as saffron has been an ongoing topic of ridicule and point of debate, which came up once again with the installation depicted in this new film. I feel compelled to defend Christo’s use of the word “saffron,” which is both a color and a spice. Appropriately, it is the most precious and most expensive spice in the world. Saffron filaments, or threads, are actually the dried stigmas of the saffron flower, Crocus Sativus Linneaus. Each flower contains only three stigmas. These threads must be picked from each flower by hand, and more than 75,000 of these flowers are needed to produce just one pound of saffron filaments. But because of the intensity of its aroma and bright orange-yellow color, saffron is typically used sparingly in food. Paradoxically, the flavor of saffron is subtle and difficult to describe; it’s a taste that is hard to pin down, sort of an enigma, similar to Christo himself.
Maybe I’m too easy, but I liked it – “The Gates,” when I saw it in person. And in the back of my head, I can still hear my old MFA directing teacher whining, “I don’t care if you l-i-i-i-ke it or don’t l-i-i-ke it; I want to know what you think about it!” Well, Christo prefers you don’t think; he wants you to only experience. Christo defiantly spurns critics, reveling in his art’s “uselessness.” His accessible approach means you don’t need to read a museum’s explanatory wall panel full of intellectual terminology to understand what you are experiencing (arguments about saffron vs orange aside). It brings people together to engage with their environment, it delights and uplifts and creates a shared emotional bond between observers. One man’s frivolous is another man’s breathtaking.
Personally, I found the experience to be the very definition of the word phenomenal – sensational in the sense of wonderful. The almost unfathomable enormity of it all, and the seeming impossibility of its logistical existence, in addition to its outrageously temporal nature – only two weeks in New York for all that tonnage of steel, is part of the dramatic appeal.
Hey, in the old days, before formal theater became popular in America, people used to pack a picnic basket and bring the family to gather with their neighbors and watch public hangings – of people, not fabric. There’s nothing like watching real death to make you feel alive. And people have died due to their participation in Christo’s events, not that it was at all intentional (although perhaps inevitable). His installations are not designed to be dangerous, but his dare-devil personality does lean in that direction. For example, his most recent artistic endeavor had a more-than-mile-long walkway-on-water, which floated atop a lake with an average depth of 400 ft, and it had absolutely no handrails or guardrails whatsoever.
During “Umbrellas” (1991), staged in both California and Japan, in which 3.100 yellow umbrellas, each more than 19-ft high, were erected across many miles of land in both countries, a storm caused one of the 448-lb aluminum-framed parasols to topple, and one woman was crushed to death by an umbrella in California. After the event turned fatal, the artist and his wife announced that the project would be closed, which led to a second death, the accidental electrocution of a worker in Japan as he helped take down an umbrella.
But before those tragedies occurred, one woman, whose mobile home overlooked a cluster of the giant umbrellas in CA, declared “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen besides the birth of my daughter.” As beautiful as birth and as horrific as death – these are two of the reasons why Christo’s projects have consistently drawn enormous attention whenever they occur, all over the world.
For “Floating Piers,” 1.2 million people showed up in this tiny town in Italy, over 16 days. In 1995, when Christo wrapped the Reichstag, five million people came to see the historic, German parliament building turned into a public art object. And part of this draw is the short-term nature of all Christo’s works; despite years of planning, the installations usually stand for about two or three weeks only.
The ephemeral quality of the projects is an aesthetic decision. Christo has gone on record as saying, “Our works are temporary in order to endow the works of art with a feeling of urgency to be seen, and the love and tenderness brought by the fact that they will not last. Those feelings are usually reserved for other temporary things, such as childhood and our own life. These are valued because we know that they will not last. We want to offer this feeling of love and tenderness to our works, as an added dimension and as an additional aesthetic quality.”
A Study of Documentary Style
I was a Christo fan long before I saw “The Gates” in New York. Why did I consider myself a fan? How did I even know about his work? I certainly never learned about it in school. The answer is: Film. I had seen several documentaries that had managed to capture and communicate the splendor and grandeur and triumphant nature of the work of this eccentric, Bulgarian-born artist and his partner-wife Jeanne-Claude.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that while I was experiencing the work of Christo through those films, and learning about his process, I was also experiencing the talent and very specific insight of the films’ directors – the Maysles brothers. Their documentarian process and philosophy were as much a part of my appreciation as was Christo’s art itself. What has become their box-set of five documentaries about Christo projects is like a history lesson of documentary form by cinema verité pioneers David and Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Salesman, Grey Gardens).
Note: Grey Gardens was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” largely due to the direction by the Maysles brothers.
In fact, the Christo films might be as much about the enduring relationship between Christo and the Maysles brothers as they are about the relationship between Christo and his wife, who was both his personal provocateur and argumentative agitator. The films are certainly a collaboration, and Christo has often spoken about the essential part those filmmakers played in bearing witness to and recording the creative impulse, the technical challenges, the political drama, the emotional investment, and the transforming effect of the finished works – all massive-scale temporary installations that illustrate the intersection of art and everyday life. But as brash and bold as Christo’s art is, the Maysles brothers were equally restrained in their unscripted, observing-not-directing style of “direct cinema,” which became their defining legacy. Let it be noted, though, that this style as employed by the Maysles brothers is not any sort of critical analysis; it is more of an affectionate, stand-back-in-awe portrayal, although they never pretend otherwise.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude met the Maysles brother in Paris in 1961, and a deeply personal, decades-long friendship was born. For a while, the brothers actually lived with Christo and his wife, following them everywhere and recording everything. The result of this devotion was an academy award nomination for their first collaboration, Christo’s Valley Curtain (1974), which watched as Christo, Jeanne-Claude and their team strung a quarter-mile curtain of nine tons of vibrant orange nylon across a gigantic cleft in a Colorado mountain range. The movie is a permanent record of a project that rocked the artistic community and turned skeptical iron workers into astonished fans.
Following that were four more films that have collectively become historic for their observational approach to filmmaking, in addition to their testament that what matters most in art is the process. That belief is never more true than in the case of Christo.
“Surrounded Islands” (1983) was a three-years-in-the-making project in which eleven islands in Biscayne Bay, Miami were each surrounded by a skirt of pink. The finished project produced one of the most iconic images of 1980s art. At the time, however, the prospect of thousands of hot-pink polypropylene sheets swimming in Miami waters left environment groups aghast. A lengthy and costly legal battle with local wildlife groups was resolved in federal court, after “endless and nerve-racking negotiations.” You can watch it all happen in Islands (1986).
At Amazon.com, where the box-set of DVDs is available for purchase, Jeff Shannon writes, “The Christos are both deliriously self-indulgent and open-heartedly generous about their work and the impressive engineering that goes into creating it. For these and other time-consuming but fleetingly visible endowments of beauty on an epic scale, the Maysles were there with camera and microphone, capturing the impact, controversy, humor, and ultimate glory of Christo’s wondrous vision.” That’s a tough act to follow, but this new documentary is a worthy tribute to all that came before it.
The New Documentary
Walking on Water offers another look at the Christo’s process and his staggeringly complicated engineering and political manipulations. More importantly, it’s the first project he’s done without his wife and partner, Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009. Christo is now collaborating with his nephew, Vladimir Yavachev. And it’s Christo’s first film without the Maysles brothers, who have also died since his last project, David in 2007 and Albert in 2015. In this documentary, Christo returns to his Bulgarian roots to bring in fellow compatriot, director Andrey Paounov (The Boy Who Was a King). If nothing else, those facts alone make this film inherently interesting; how will these new relationships compare to and comment on what came before them?
Once again, we get to watch the artist’s bull-headed personality as he, now 83 years old, pushes to complete an audacious project that was conceived decades previously but rejected in both Argentina and Japan. It is finally in Italy that Christo’s floating pathway enables visitors to explore their environment from new perspectives as they meander across the water on foot. But technology has changed over the years, and thanks to digital photography, cameras have never been quite as privileged to such immersive and up-close views of Christo’s craft as they are here.
Walking on Water draws from over 700 hours of footage, a daunting amount of material to sort. Yet Paounov succeeds in delivering a compelling portrait of the fine madness entailed in the pursuit of art – the passion, the devotion, the headaches, the screaming matches, the boredom, the flashes of inspiration.
Interview with Christo and Andry Paounov
I almost was able to interview Christo and director Andrey Paounov (AP, below) for this film’s release in New York City, but that fell through at the last minute, as I imagine is often the case with much of what they do. So, I am going to liberally quote from previous interviews they have done, primary with POV Magazine and live at Toronto International Film Festival, because I do think their own words are significant in appreciating the value of the new documentary. Note that these are selected snippets only and taken out of context, but they speak to the issues I have discussed so far in this article. I have bolded key statements:
AP: Christo always documents his projects. Documentation is always part of the art.
Ch: Yes, since the ’60s when we met Albert and David Maysles… When Albert and David came to Paris in 1961 to show their films, we became very close friends. I had photographers following me at the time, taking pictures of the project for books, and we [the Maysles and Jeanne-Claude and I] became like a family. It was an incredible chance that they could film my work. I had no films before that. That is how everything started. David died and Albert passed away after The Gates project . Then I was alone. With my nephew and friends working together, we were very conscious that we had to film this project, and have it covered by many cinematographers.
AP: I got into the project at the end of “The Floating Piers. They had about 10 crews that were following Christo at different moments of the project. There were many crews: some were just doing aerial shots, some just following Christo, underwater cameras—there’s a lot that isn’t in the film… That was the challenge of making the film. There was so much footage that it took me three months just watching it 10 hours a day, every day.
There was no pre-concept or general direction in what the crews shot. We had no idea what was there. I had assistants and we were watching together, exchanging files, and finding out what was there. At one point, I started finding some tracks in the footage and what I was interested in finding — a character piece from all this chaos. Luckily, we live in the digital age, so there were days of cameras rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling. In between all this stuff, there were brilliant little pieces where you could see him and all the relationships with the family behind the Christo project. That’s how we started putting this puzzle together.
We also continued documenting his adventures. The end of the film [which sees Christo embark on a new project, The Mastaba] is something that we shot, but The Floating Piers was the other way around. It was like finding a suitcase of footage on the street.
Ch: You will see that I am not very technologically inclined. Of course, anyone can film, but the important part of all the films, especially this film, is that we were very conscious of filming a distinct period and the hard work. It’s very important when the physical project no longer exists. We never do the same things again. There will be no more Floating Piers, no more Valley Curtain. We do not know ourselves how the things will look. But we do know something: we know how to do it. All that work is so private and invisible for many people. We were very eager to show people what often isn’t seen by the public: the conflicts, the drama, the soul of the work. It is the reason I do not do commissions. All our projects over fifty years translate this energy when they are realized, not because some mayor of the city or corporate executive gives us some money to make a sculpture.
AP: But with the digital age, what has changed, especially since the previous films were made, is that the films were made in order to experience the project. Nowadays, it’s the opposite. We’re drowning in images. The Floating Piers destroyed Instagram there were so many images. I knew while making the film that I couldn’t just show the project as people had already seen it on TV, the news, and social media. I was also not interested in doing that because I’ve always felt that you have to make films about people and not things.
It [Walking on Water] was the first film I made outside of Eastern Europe. It meant coming to NY and working w Christo. The most fantastic thing about making documentaries is you get to live other people’s lives and dreams, and his world is incredible…
I thought, how can I come after the Maysles? In a way this is an homage to the Maysles brothers and also to direct cinema. [I got to utilize] everything I loved about American cinema from the 60s and cinema verité.
HelenHighly: Well, Paounov does indeed offer a sort of homage to the award-winning style that preceded him, but he definitely also leaves his own mark. Starting with creating his own title, rather than taking the same name for the film as Christo used for the art project, Paounov has made a contemporary film that speaks to history and originality and the process of creation. I think it’s time for art-theaters around the country to roll out the orange carpet for Walking on Water.
Watch the Walking on Water trailer, below: