Controversial Artist Lectures at Smith
Published: Thursday, April 26, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 19:04
From behind a screen in JMG last Thursday, contemporary artist Christo Javacheff’s German-accented voice floated over images of his critically acclaimed artistic projects: huge umbrellas placed over two-story houses in Japan, an orange curtain filling a Colorado valley and curtained orange doorways along pathways in Central Park.
The bold and ambitious works by the artist, who commonly goes by Christo, have received both praise and skepticism worldwide. Controversy also surrounds Christo’s recent proposed project, “Over the River,” which proposes suspending specially-woven reflective fabric over a network of steel cables. The project would extend 5.9 miles in length over the Arkansas River, and while some residents anticipate artistic and tourist benefits, others are concerned about the environmental impact of the project and potential construction and traffic problems.
Christo’s visit to Smith marked the conclusion of the 18-month Five College Riverscaping conference, sponsored by grants from the American Delegation to the European Union and each of the Five Colleges.
His keynote address furthered the conference’s mission to “rethink art, environment and community,” according to Professor Reed Bertone-Johnson of Smith’s landscape studies department.
“I think some of Christo’s work is a performance piece about starting a dialogue,” said Bertone-Johnson, remarking that Christo’s work helps identify loopholes in environmental regulatory laws.
Although he praised Christo’s “drive and interest in his work and perseverance,” Bertone-Johnson said, “In addition to being, as he described last night, useless and frivolous, his art is reckless. He’s completely intrigued by his pursuit of art and being able to solve the obstacles to building it, and he might not have the mountain goats and sea animals in mind.”
Referring to Christo’s 1980-83 projects in Biscayne Bay, Bertone-Johnson said, “It is impossible to wrap an island in plastic fabric and not damage the environment.”
Despite Christo’s assertion, “I will not answer questions on politics, religion or on other artists,” politics lurks in the background of many of his artistic works. The Japanese government refused his umbrella project three times before conceding, and Christo’s Central Park “Gates” project was blocked in 1979 by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, only to be reconsidered and carried out under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a friend of Christo’s.
In August 1992, Christo undertook the first step in his “Over the River” project: the 50,000-mile drive investigating 89 rivers in the Rockies to find potential project sites. He found two in Colorado.
“Everything in the world belongs to somebody,” said Christo, briefly describing how the U.S. Bureau of Land Management rents land to build highways and airports. A large portion of money spent on Christo’s “Over the River” project has gone into obtaining the necessary installation permits.
“I think understanding the complexities of permitting the stuff he does is a good window into permitting anything,” said Professor Bertone-Johnson.
“Over the River” has been delayed several years while Christo works to secure local support for the extensive construction necessary to implement his vision. One picture in Christo’s slideshow showed him explaining the project to residents of a Colorado senior citizen center.
Joan Anzelmo, spokeswoman for Rags Over the Arkansas River (ROAR), a grassroots volunteer organization that opposes Christo’s river project, applauded the aims of the Riverscaping conference, but expressed concerns that Christo’s keynote address would “present his rosy-colored version of the proposed ‘Over the River’ so-called art project and negate the criticism of the environmental damage his project will inflict.”
“ROAR is very interested in offering the rest of the story based in hard facts and demonstrate just how destructive his project will be if allowed to proceed,” wrote Anzelmo. ROAR representatives have filed two open lawsuits, one against the Bureau of Land Management and one against the State of Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, charging that the agencies approved Christo’s proposal in violation of environmental policy. The group has stated that “Over the River” will impact the Arkansas River and Bighorn Sheep Canyon in the same way the BP oil spill contaminated the Gulf of Mexico.