Walking on Water (Andrey Paounov, 2018) 3½ out of 4 stars.
For over 50 years, romantic and artistic partners Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Marie Denat, he Bulgarian, she French – known collectively as Christo and Jeanne-Claude – wowed the world with public, open-air installations in various locations, most involving some kind of fabric wrapped around monuments natural and human-made. I was fortunate enough to see “The Gates” in Manhattan’s Central Park, back in 2005 when I still lived in New York. I found it a wonderful example of participatory art, all communing simultaneously with the urban and natural landscapes and Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s flapping textile “gates.” Given the rarity of these kinds of moments, I treasure the memory.
Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, but Christo soldiers on, and the new documentary Walking on Water, from filmmaker Andrey Paounov (The Boy Who Was a King), follows its subject as he installs “The Floating Piers” on Lake Iseo, in northern Italy (not far from the Swiss border). After decades of rejection from other sites, Christo is brimming with joy as the project he conceived of with Jeanne-Claude is finally on the verge of being realized. It is quite an ambitious work, as well, with floating piers built in three different locations, two converging on a small island just offshore, the other connecting two sides of the lake. The total length of the structure, built from interlocking polyethylene cubes, clocks in at around 3 kilometers, the whole to be covered with the artist’s by-now-standard orange cloth. We watch the entire process, from start to finish, behind the scenes and then in the middle of the exhibit in progress. It’s a marvel of engineering and artistic vision.
It does not all go smoothly, however, given the vagaries of the weather and the density of local bureaucracy. Once the piers open, on June 18, 2016, for a projected 16 days, the troubles really begin, since municipal authorities appear unable, or unwilling, to stop the much-larger-than-expected flow of people pouring into the town, threatening the integrity of the structure. A little girl goes missing in the middle of it all, adding to everyone’s stress. These problems aside, for a little while – until July 3 of that year, anyway – the lake, as was Central Park in 2005, becomes a place where people gather to celebrate the wonder of imagination coupled to the splendors of the water and the nearby Alps.
Christo, himself, makes for an often ornery protagonist. Spry at 81 (when the film was made), he brooks little disagreement, aided and abetted by his nephew, the strapping Vladimir Yanachev, who serves as his project manager. Together, along with the hired crew and many cooperative and talented locals, they make it happen, though not always with a smile. The documentary is as much a tribute to the sweat and toil of mounting such an exhibit as it is to the beauty of its final effect. To walk on water, one must first earn the right to do so, and these folks strive to deserve that honor. See Walking on Water, and stride vicariously by their side.