Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, known simply as Christo, is an 83-year-old environmental artist. Along with his wife, Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009, Christo found notoriety in large-scale temporary art projects. They wrapped Paris’ Pont Neuf Bridge in 450,000 square feet of sandstone fabric; they shrouded Berlin’s Reichstag in silvery textiles; and they constructed an 18-foot high, 24.5-mile long fence in Sonoma, California out of nylon and steel cables. Art critic David Bourdon called it, “revelation through concealment.”
But the passing of Jeanne-Claude brought Christo’s work to a halt. Like all artists, the number of unrealized projects was numerous, and, for a while, it looked like it would stay that way. But it’s hard to keep an active mind idle, and Christo decided it was time to bring these ideas to fruition.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude conceived “The Floating Piers” — documented in Walking on Water from filmmaker Andrey M. Paounov — back in the 1970s. The idea: fasten a series of interlocking plastic cubes across a waterway and allow people to walk across it. Even more impressive, the cubes move with the water as it swells and sinks, giving the walker the sensation of walking on liquid and not a solid structure. And the cubes’ ability to disperse weight is seemingly limitless, which is good, considering Christo and his team expected 45,000 people to use the walkway when it opened June 2016. By the time it closed 16 days later, 1.2 million had strolled down Italy’s Lake Iseo.
Paounov captures this artistic feat without the benefit of interviews, news reports, or hand-holding exposition. Using cinema vérité’s fly-on-the-wall aesthetic, Paounov watches as Christo wrangles the technicians, resources, and government co-operation needed to pull of Floating Piers. He also captures Vladimir Yavachev, Christo’s nephew and long-suffering assistant. “There’s not moment you are not an artist,” Christo says. It also appears there is no moment when Christo isn’t an overbearing ass.
But Floating Piers has been a dream of Christo and his deceased wife for nearly half his life, why wouldn’t he act this demanding? The beauty of Walking on Water is that it doesn’t lionize Christo at the sacrifice of all the men and women who labored to bring his work to fruition. In an era where documentaries and narrative films are content to paint their subjects as insulated geniuses, Walking on Water shows the sheer labor of creation, the logistics necessary for bringing it about, and the stress involved with how the public uses and consumes it. True art rarely ever falls from the sky; it is the product of human hands. It’s nice to see it treated as such.