Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Most Extraordinary Land Art

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Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83© Christo and Jeanne-Claude, photography by Wolfgang Volz

As the headline-grabbing Floating Piers at Italy's Lake Iseo come to a close, we consider five of the pair's most spectacular environmental installations

Conceptual twosome Christo and Jeanne-Claude have long been synonymous with large-scale enigmatic works of environmental art. For more than 48 years the duo worked together tirelessly to reimagine natural landscapes, from Australian harbours and Floridian archipelagos to Berliner Reichstag and Rocky Mountain valleys, with their vast labyrinthine swathes of coloured cloth. Even now, seven years after Jeanne-Claude's sad passing at the age of 74, Christo continues their legacy; for the past two weeks visitors to Italy's Lake Iseo have been enchanted by The Floating Piers, for which 100,000 square metres of shimmering yellow fabric float on the open water, forming a footbridge to the island of San Paolo.

Theirs is a compelling story. Born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon – both on June 13, 1935, curiously enough – the pair began their shared entrancement in Paris in October 1958 at the age of 23, Christo having travelled from Communist Bulgaria through Czechoslovakia and Prague to reach the city, and Jeanne-Claude from Morocco. It was here that their enduring fascination with encasing objects in cloth first began. In 1961 they embarked upon their initial collaboration, enveloping barrels and packages at Cologne’s port. One year later they were married, and had set about installing their inaugural large-scale monument, Rideau de Fer or Iron Curtain, a combative sculptural work protesting the Berlin Wall. This piece assured their notoriety in the French capital, and in 1964 they embarked permanently for New York City, where Christo began exhibiting sculptural works with several renowned galleries, subsidising them through constructing saleable storefronts.

Over the three decades that followed, the pair continued to construct ever larger cloth environmental installations across the United States, France, Germany, Switzerland, Australia and Japan, assembling an astounding oeuvre of recognisable landscapes transformed into ephemeral explorations of the familiar.

Now, as The Floating Piers comes to its end, having brought two weeks of joy to visitors to the region, we're taking advantage of the opportunity to celebrate the duo’s extraordinary contribution to the creative landscape. Here are five of their most spectacular installations – from 1,000 orange archways in New York's Central Park, to a cloak-like covering over Berlin's Reichstag.

Wrapped Coast, One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia, 1968-1969
October 1969’s Wrapped Coast enshrouded 1.5 miles of Little Bay in Australia’s roughened coastal palisades in one million square feet of the lightest ecru erosion-control cloth, entwined throughout with 35 miles of polypropylene rope. The colossal piece, which was installed at the invitation of Australian art collector John Kaldor, wrapped the arcing seaside spires to heights of over 85 feet, a length of 1.5 miles, and expanded to almost 800 feet. 

Installing the piece was no mean feat, requiring a crew of 15 professional mountain climbers, 110 workers (architecture and art students both from the University of Sydney and East Sydney Technical College), as well as a number of Australian artists and teachers – this number giving some idea as to the work's immense scale. It was, at the time, the largest lone artwork ever created: bigger even than South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore, it demanded a full hour’s walk to traverse, and no lone panorama could capture it in its entirety.

Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-1983
Garlanding 11 islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay, Surrounded Islands encompassed 200-foot-wide swathes of cherry-blossom fuchsia polypropylene cloth, vibrantly silhouetting each against the deep azure of the South Floridian lagoon’s tepid waters. The installation required 6.5 million square feet of wreathing cloth in order for each of the 11 tropical uninhabited islands to be faultlessly contoured by 79 individual cut-patterns – comprising, all in all, over seven languorous bay miles. 

The piece was quite a sight to behold, and no mean feat to execute. From April of 1981, attorneys, marine biologists, ornithologists, and engineers had fastidiously prepared each island for the operation, with marine and land-working crews removing some 40 tonnes of flotsam from each – refrigerator doors, automobile tires, kitchen basins, mattresses and a long-abandoned boat included.

The work captivated visitors from nearby Miami, as well as from the causeways, airways and sailboats of Biscayne Bay, for two extraordinary weeks, demanding a workforce of no less than 430 individuals. Beneath the surface, the complexities continued: marine engineered innovation to ensure ample buoyancy and concealed anchoring and fabric tethering were in place underneath to keep the fabric in check amidst changeable ocean currents and ever-vacillating south Atlantic weather.

Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-1995
Preparatory work for Wrapped Reichstag, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s encasing of Germany’s parliamentary seat and an enduring synonym for German democracy and the site of national reunification, first began in 1971, but the ambitious work wasn’t realised however for some 24 years, finally being unveiled in 1995. Wrapped Reichstag demanded over a million square feet of aluminium-surfaced polypropylene cloth, trussed about with nearly ten miles of rope.

By the time the installation was complete, it enveloped the assorted towers, façades and eaves with 70 tailor-constructed panels, and employed twice as much fabric as the grand building’s surface itself. It was, however, magnificent – something like a governmental building wrapped up like a Christmas gift – making the decades of judicial negotiation required to pull it off more than worthwhile. The extraordinary feat was viewable for two weeks (a recurring duration for Christo and Jeanne-Claude's works), after which it was dismantled just as British architect Norman Foster's historic restoration of the Reichstag began.

The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005
Serpentine archways of deepest saffron meandered over the knolls and valleys of New York’s Central Park for February 2005’s The Gates. 7,503 freestanding gates, all 16 feet high and varying in width from five to 18 feet, constituted no less than 23 miles of celebratory archway, creating quite the spectacle for onlookers. Meanwhile, great yellow sheets were suspended from the arches’ horizontal crossbars, blowing triumphantly in the wind as visitors to the park ambled through its famous footpaths. Altogether, the work transformed a birds-eye view of Central Park into a glowing river of yellow.

The installation was implemented by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, long an admirer of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work, after decades of bureaucratic wrangling, and drew reference from traditional Japanese Torii gates, repeated vermillion entranceways constructed for Shinto shrines (and perhaps also Jeanne-Claude’s iconic, equally saffron locks). The Gates' repeated rectangular forms mimicked Manhattan itself, offering visitors a serene respite from the relentless island metropolis. New York was Christo and Jeanne-Claude's adopted hometown, so the piece was especially celebratory for the pair, and received the Doris C. Freedman Award for Public Art.

The Floating Piers, Lake Iseo, Italy, 2014-2016
The Floating Piers on Italy’s Lake Iseo, Christo’s latest installation, was first imagined by he and Jeanne-Claude in 1970, and has become the first large-scale work to be authored by Christo alone following his wife’s death in 2009. It is perhaps their most spectacular work yet: 100,000 square metres of brilliant marigold cloth undulates over the lake’s surface, connecting the village of Sulzano with the islands of Monte Isola and San Paolo. 

“Those who experience The Floating Piers will feel like they are walking on water – or perhaps the back of a whale,” Christo said of the 1.9 mile installation. In fact, the work has transformed the languid lakeshore villages of Sulzano and Peschiera Maraglio into joyous bedlam; devotees from all across Italy and beyond have walked on water with Christo's help.