(In representation or otherwise)
‘Floating Piers’ (2016) by Jean Claude and Christo was a work that was seemingly functional for sixteen days, as long as it existed. This bridge also served as a semi-obituary, a story of individual loss, several coincidences and a clear separation. Jean had passed away a decade ago, Jean (Morocco) and Christo (Bulgaria) were born on the same day (1935), this was his first work alone and Jean had famously said, “If he had been a dentist I would have become the same”. Spectacle was the initial key sketch from which they evolved all their works since they met half a decade ago. Loss, coincidences and separation were the three tentative possibilities for anyone while being on the floating bridge, when it was on for those sixteen days 18th June to 3rd July 2016).
It did not exist ‘before’ and ‘after’ the specified dates, like, say, any event. But this was no event since Christo (and Jean) had used physical material, the usual saffron-yellow fabric that they always used for most of their works. It was functional in the sense people could walk on it so as to define it; while not many used it to move from point A to point B, even as a means of artistic transport. The artwork, its content, audience and artistic act were mutually inseparable in this contemporary parable. A bridge from nowhere to elsewhere, between the physical island to a metaphoric artistic walk, the piers stretched for more than five kilometers, making a ‘spectacle’ out of its own self. And finally, it was the essence of spectacle that was dislodged in a spectacular way. Did the loss of Jean make Christo do this, alone?
One thing that struck me rather harshly was the way the orange-yellow fabric spread. On the bridge, I realized that it ‘made’ the bridge. Off the bridge, I realized that wherever the fabric was extended and spread, even in the small lanes around the tourist houses, hotels etc., they forced tourism to become part of the event, for that stretch of time. Everybody knew that it was a parable, a fable, out o the bedtime stories but spread across reality, for a while. Through this ‘use’less bridge, Christo had bridged metaphor and reality; and exchanged their roles for a while.
Everyone on the bridge knew where they were, most knew where they were moving to as a crowd, many wondered why they are there, few questioned its worth while none doubted its spontaneity. It has been ages since the art lover has been subject to insult by positioning him/her at an arms-length from art since the latter is, first of all, treated as a commodity. On the other hand, Christo was making the audience to become the owners, artists, audience, the consumer, critics and art itself, by making them walk on his bridge, thus converting his very art into a container of people!
Earlier, spectacle always carried religious connotations within which the pilgrims willfully carried physical pain with them, to reach a destination. They had only the same route to return back, to the mundane surrounding. A contemporary avatar of that is Vatican, a one square kilometer country which is located in the capital of the country in which Christos’ floating piers happened/occurred. Floating Piers was built on the lake Iseo in Brescia near Solzano, 650 kms north of Rome. Consider the risk of this work, apart from its mega-budget and effort: the scale and essence of this work would bulge only by audience’s participation—a notion upon which the film industry is based upon. The difference was that, nothing would have changed if people did not come on the piers.
It is not at all coincidental that Christo has been floating this project since 1979, despite technological inability to realize it then, in this country of artistic and religious pilgrimage. His intention to dissociate from spectacle, in the only way he knows how to do it (one of his/her earlier work spread to 45 kilometers, audience were killed and Jean/Christo ran around banks, courts and plumbing as frequently as they visited their aesthetic sites), that too from within the country of Renaissance fame and spectacle. This was pointed out in a tongue-in-cheek manner, when he said that there was nothing to the work beyond what it ‘was’. The existential angst of a solitary undertaking of a joint project after losing one’s partner could be the only genuine reason to deconstruct spectacle. This becomes obvious if one remembers that they never took money from left-right ideology sources, acquired it by making preliminary artworks about the concerned projects, even did not travel together in the same flight for the fear of death which would lead to incomplete art projects, did not charge their audience nor did they sell the actual project; and the money spent on this work (like most of theirs) should have sufficed to make a Hollywood film. There are too many hidden meaningful and ethical layers beneath the floating piers, instead of sheer still waters of the Iseo Lake. One of them is obviously the notion of the spectacle in general and the grandiose of spectacle in particular. There is a saying in Kannada by a medieval poet meaning the “best of the governance is farce” (‘Uttama prabhuthva lolalotte’).For me, Christo seemed to be saying similar things to history of art and Renaissance’s effects in general and to Italy/Vatican in particular.
Memory and the physical presence/existence of an artwork share a historic relationship wherein the former succeeds the latter while the latter can co-exist with the former and often intends to outlive the latter, if at all such a thing is possible. In a simple sense, the floating pyre was a floating ‘temporary bridge of three weeks’ teasingly connecting at least two islands and a township, to facilitate people to experience a spontaneous walk on it. The artists’ statement was very clear about refuting the responsibility of any ‘meaning’ into it. He/she ha(s)d come up with a bridge which was used like a fair, to look around, walk, relax, celebrate, watch, be watched and accidentally be archived among strangers’ cameras, perhaps forever. ‘Pilgrimage’ and ‘road traffic’ are two societal constructs which subject gaze to a certain turmoil, while Christo splits gaze to the actual (eye sight) and the documentative (camera) entities.
In a way, it was not a temporary, make-shift floating bridge between two points in space — but in time. The awareness that it was on and available only for a few days, along with the fact that the artist is in his 80s and this is the first major work he has done on his own without his wife, seem to add sentimentality to the ‘spectacle’ of this meaning-less work. The charm in it is how meaning-lessly this spectacle is dissolved ironically in a magnificient way! Before and after this work, tourists come over here to ‘see’ Solzano, Brescia and Monte Isola; but now, vehicles were barred from entering this place-of-spectacle due to over crowdedness, trains were off the track due to excessive traffic and more than anything else, the island of spectacle was used as a premise from wherein the bridge could be viewed, shot and documented. The reversal of spectacle is one mode of dissolving the ego that regulates it. 100000 people visited floating piers every day and the authorities had to alter the timings of visit by barring visits between midnight and 6am. The reason was to clean up the residue left behind by the audience. Earlier, in another work by Jean-Christo, someone had left behind a vehicle and a fridge ‘on’ the work, just like that, at the Miami Beach!
Meaning is the first thing that is at stake when spectacle hits someone, no matter how long. The comparison is no mere coincidence: at Vatican downtown, one stands or ‘skip(s)-the-line’ (for a higher price and almost illegally) to enter the Chapel and is subject to deal with like-minded strangers. These strangers become inevitable part and parcel of what you watch therein; till you reach the “no-sound and photos” functional Church wherein floats the murals of Michelangelo, surrounded by regulated official instructions to remain silent that almost creates a systematic humorous noisy irritation by default. Spectators remain mute spectators and are constantly being instructed that they have no active participation in it. Christos’ floating piers is a spectacle that dissolves all such spectacle, that too while you are left on your own, devastated with what you see all around you, as-it-is! The difference is obvious: there is nothing created beyond the mundane to feel so; and there is nobody else who can create for those who want!
The pilgrim-like travel is to somewhere, wherein the Piers is meant to avail floating and walking on it, to just be there! Nobody will and can stop it being photographed, since it is an open premise, like the bayalu (laying bare) concept of the Hindus. Everybody on the piers lives a double life as long as they ‘stay’ on it: they live and simultaneously ‘document’ being part of it as well as constantly alter its definition, while being aware, like in Ukiyo-e prints (floating worlds of the Japanese wood engravings). Even while on it, you are constantly aware of the possibility of your quick exit as well as that of the work itself. The artistic bridge was an art of travelogue of quick exits in the land of bullet-proofed artworks.
The essential brushing and philosophical clash of the floating piers with the Vatican art was too obvious: one not only lived and immediately documented their existence on it but also got a piece of cloth out of which the piers was made. The pieces were offered as a gift by volunteers, on the very bridge, for free. You walk into what you believe is an artwork, immediately realize that you are actually its defining entity, you are becoming what you have come to see—the spectacle of tourism; and you are handed over with a piece of what you have become—a memento. Time seems to move in a quick succession between the making, existence and museumisation of an artwork, in the historical sense, on the (memory rewind of) floating piers. Christo makes you do what Christ could not –collect yourself a memento of which you have become a part of.
Even in this digital age, one pays to be photographed outside Vatican, is withheld or sent out for clicking inside in certain restricted areas and even a sleeveless top bars you away from ‘entering’ not only the home of art but also that of god. Christo mocks, laughs, adores, yet makes a critique of how we live, in the very spot we live i.e. on (and through) the floating piers!
Floating Piers is a visual deconstruction of the tourist industry built around godly-matters, from within the same country. One can only imagine impossibility of something similar in an Indian context: the gods, the critique, deconstruction and the spectacle around the refutation. Christos’ messianic self-revelation about such revelations is an old man’s wise passing comments as well as a risky proposal at his age. It is also a moralistic methodology class in realizing how the contacts, image and influence, when available, should be reengaged into its own critique. Christo appears as a medieval Indian Sufi saint who refuses refusals and avails hopes amidst the pomp of the grandiose that the historically spectacularised towns possess. The best way to critique spectacle is through its own self, since the opposite of it –simplicity –is what the former has already proved fragile to deal with its own self.
What I like about the ‘Floating Piers’ is the way it addresses the worthlessness of representation in such a worthy manner; and adore Christo for making a spectacle out of dissolving the grandiose notion of taste.//