Department

Vision Quest

One of the world’s most ambitious—and notorious—artists has chosen Colorado as his latest canvas. But will the disruption caused by the massive project be worth the trouble?

October 2011

In the blazing late-summer heat of southern Colorado, the Arkansas River winds between canyon walls outside Cañon City. This idyllic view could change dramatically in two years, when the river is covered with the silvery fabric of the long-embattled “Over the River” art installation. As I ponder the meaning of a grand artistic statement that lasts a mere two weeks, an insistent voice, thick with a Bulgarian accent, interjects.

“Look, look there!”

Grabbing my elbow, Christo, the infamous artist behind OTR, points to where the suspended fabric panels will catch the sun’s rays, an invisible point that—although it’s depicted in many renderings and engineering plans—still exists primarily in his mind. “It will be incredible, like the river itself,” Christo says, still pointing upstream. “It will turn gold when the sun sets.”

As someone from outside the Arkansas River Valley, it’s easy to appreciate the artist’s passion, and Christo’s work has always promoted the idea of art for art’s sake. Those who live and work in the area, however, don’t necessarily share his enthusiasm.

“Over the River” is the latest in Christo’s prolific string of massive public art installations. “The Gates” in New York City’s Central Park, “The Wrapped Reichstag” in Berlin, and “The Pont Neuf Wrapped” in Paris are just a few of the projects that have earned Christo and his late wife and business partner, Jeanne-Claude, cultural acclaim and notoriety worldwide.

OTR calls for 5.9 miles of giant fabric panels to be hung intermittently over a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River between Salida and Cañon City. The translucent, silvery, polypropylene panels, supported by steel cables and anchors, will create a shimmery and disjointed tunnel over the waterway, hanging at least eight feet above the surface. It will be viewable from U.S. Highway 50, which parallels the river, or from underneath while kayaking or rafting.

In late July, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) finally released its 1,686-page Environmental Impact Statement, a document that’s causing much of the consternation. (Christo and Jeanne-Claude first proposed OTR in 1992.) Although the completed project is expected be on display for two weeks in August 2014, the project has caused a rift between supporters who tout the benefits Christo’s work will bring to the state, and opponents who vehemently protest OTR’s impact on area residents and wildlife.

Construction will require regular lane closures on U.S. 50 to accommodate heavy-duty engineering equipment. These machines will drill 9,100 holes into the river’s rocky banks and transport into the area enough steel for 36 miles of cable. Among the unusual construction requirements will be professional rock climbers, who will assist workers during part of the installation.

To the 76-year-old Christo, OTR is about finishing the work he started with his beloved wife. Before she died in November 2009 due to complications from a brain aneurysm, the fiery Jeanne-Claude—known for her gritty persona and signature mane of blazing red hair—played a key role in dealing with the establishment the duo always tried to upend.

Together they finished 22 of the 59 proposals they created, financing everything themselves. Their chemistry came naturally. (And perhaps cosmically: Both were born on June 13, 1935.) “We decided everything together,” Christo says. Now Christo, whose own frizzy white hair and angular features recall the mad scientist Doc Brown from Back to the Future, pursues the pair’s vision alone.

By the time OTR is complete, Christo will be nearly 80 years old, and despite his energy and conviction, these large-scale international projects take years to complete. (Christo also is working on “The Mastaba,” a pyramidlike installation in the Middle East.) This leaves open the possibility that OTR could be one of Christo’s last major works. But if a small, vocal contingent of Coloradans gets its way, the sunlight may never glint off the artist’s shimmering vision.

To get approval for OTR, Christo needs permission from a slew of state and federal agencies. OTR is the first-ever public art project to require an Environmental Impact Statement from the BLM; such formal analysis is typically reserved for infrastructure proposals like bridges and highways.

Swaying the government was merely one obstacle. Area residents dedicated to protecting the Bighorn Sheep Canyon founded ROAR—Rags Over the Arkansas River—a nonprofit group whose motto is “Say No to Christo.” In July, ROAR and a local fly-fishing outfitter, Arkanglers, filed a joint lawsuit against the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, alleging that the defendants violated their own permit-granting rules and prematurely green-lit Christo without seeing a clear plan for impact mitigation. “It’s a nightmare,” says Dan Ainsworth, president of ROAR and a trucker who regularly makes deliveries along U.S. 50. “It’s a tragedy in the making. Most people who are in favor of it don’t have to live here and put up with it for five years. We are still astonished that the BLM even considered considering this.”

Among their concerns is OTR’s environmental impact. Although Christo’s team will sell back the cables to the steel company, about 9,000 partial cable anchor bolts will stay lodged—albeit invisibly—in the rocks. Also, the Arkansas is one of Colorado’s most popular moving-water fisheries, and is the most-rafted whitewater river in the country. Although OTR will pay $550,000 to the state to offset administrative costs and impact to the river, it’s unclear how that will be divvied up to cover lost income for area fishing outfitters, for example, during the long period of limited access to the waters.

The BLM’s financial analysis—which projects an estimated $121.3 million in economic output for the state, more than 600 temporary new jobs, and an influx of 344,000 tourists for $75.8 million in visitor spending—is difficult to ignore. But the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are hoping the complaint will further stall the project, or even kill it. “I feel like I’m David reaching down to find a rock to throw at Goliath,” says Rod Patch, co-owner of Arkanglers, “and nothing’s there.”

Christo is unmoved by the opposition. Frankly, he’s faced worse: In 1991, an installation of 1,340 giant steel umbrellas along a California highway (the duo simultaneously erected 1,760 umbrellas in Japan) was shut down after winds dislodged one of them, killing one woman and injuring several others. “The work of art is not the fabric and steel cables,” Christo says of OTR. “The work of art is all this togetherness: the river, the trees, the telephone poles, the road…the process is a work of art. Even those who imagine and dismiss ‘Over the River’ before it actually exists—how ugly and awful it would be—they’re still thinking about it.”

Whether his foes like it or not, Christo will strive to complete this project, “The Mastaba,” and whatever else his prolific mind conjures up. “When we have a refusal, we try again,” he says. “The most important thing is that our desire, pleasure, and joy is still fresh. We do the project for ourselves first. If other people like it, it’s only a bonus. I am stubborn, but as Jeanne-Claude used to say, ‘Artists do not retire; they die.’ ” m

Julie Dugdale is a senior editor of 5280. Email her at [email protected].