A behind-the-scenes look at how Christo walked on water | Film | DW | 26.03.2019
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Film

A behind-the-scenes look at how Christo walked on water

A new documentary about the 81-year-old artist best known for wrapping things in fabric premieres in Berlin. It offers a look into turbulent making of "The Floating Piers" installation.

"Stop! Machines off!" yells Christo, waving his arms vigorously. The trailer of a new documentary, Christo – Walking on Water, shows the artist arguing with his workers about how the fabric of his installation should be hung, or in a helicopter controlling the scene from above. Giving a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a large-scale installation, the film shows how unstoppable and bursting with vitality Christo really is. 

Documentary filmmaker Andrey Paounov accompanied the artist best known for wrapping things in fabric as he worked on his large-scale project The Floating Piers in Italy, in 2016. Over 1.2 million people walked on the bright yellow jetties he installed on Lake Iseo in northern Italy.

Paounov's film will premiere in Berlin on March 26, and both the artist and director will be present. 

Christo on The Floating Piers (picture-alliance/dpa/Wolfgang Volz)

Christo standing on 'The Floating Piers'

A long-term project

It was back in the 1970s when Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude came up with the idea for The Floating Piers, an installation of fabric-covered pontoons, which make it possible to walk across water. Potential sites for the project included Rio de la Plata between Uruguay and Argentina and the bay of Tokyo. Yet, the pair were not able to make their idea come to life in these spots, for environmental and other reasons.

Finally, in northern Italy, on Lake Iseo between Milan and Venice, Christo succeeded in convincing nature conservation associations and authorities to get on board with his idea. It was one of the first massive projects  Christo took on since the death of his wife in 2009, after Big Air Package that filled in 2013 the Gasometer Oberhausen, an exhibition space in Germany.

Set in front of the Italian Alps, the  three-kilometer-long work of art made of floating bridges connected the islands of Monte Isola and San Paolo with the town of Sulzano. "All of our artworks are totally useless. They only exist because myself and Jeanne Claude wanted to see them come to reality," says Christo in the film.
Read more: Christo presents The Mastaba, his new large-scale art object in London 

Fabric panels made in Germany

In his documentary Christo - Walking on Water, director Andrey Paounov follows the turbulent creation of The Floating Piers, showing the technical challenges, hurdles and fight against wind and weather, as well as many moments of success. With his fiery temperament, Cristo is quick to roar with anger — and to calm down again.

The 100,000 square meters of nylon bands were made of German fabric that was sewn together and attached to a floating dock system. The docks consisted of 220,000 plastic cubes fastened to one another, which were then recycled after the operation, along with the nylon fabric.

Christo is famous for his sensational installations and abstract works of art that take into account the surrounding landscape. He wrapped the German parliament building in fabric, covered trees in Switzerland, as well as roads in Kansas City. Sometimes he simply fills fabric with air, as he did for his piece Big Air Package.

The material that he lays on each object represents the transience of his works of art. According to the artist, they should not belong to anyone and no one should have to pay admission to experience them. The Floating Piers in northern Italy were open to visitors for just 16 days and cost the artist over €15 million ($17 million). As always, he earned the money by selling his own sketches, photographs and other works.

Read more: Why Christo's Floating Piers had to be destroyed 

Christo project The Floating Piers (Getty Images/AFP/F. Monteforte)

Workers place fabric strips on 'The Floating Piers'

A project of 'total madness'

Mayor Fiorello Turla had hoped to bring 800,000 visitors to his small town of Sulzano. Yet in June 2016, 1.2 million people came over to to see The Floating Piers. On opening day, 55,000 people were ready and waiting to experience the walk, which led to logistical problems and concern about the potential for accidents. There were also thunderstorms. At times, the jetties had to be closed due to bad weather.

There was also danger that the pontoons wouldn't be able to hold up to the continuous crowds. The film shows the trouble the installation's organizers had to hold back the crowds. Cameras in hand, media representatives rush over the pontoons and through the streets of Sulzano as an angry Christo says: "There are 200,000 people today. This is madness, total madness!"

The installation attracted 1.2 million visitors (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler)

The installation attracted 1.2 million visitors

Walking on water

Speaking to a group of Italian students, Christo says: "I love real things, real wind, real dry, real wet; real fear and real joy. "Christo's joy seemed especially great during the storm, when the waves hit the 16-meter-wide jetties. Christo just stood there enjoying it like a little kid," Robert Meyknecht told DW at the time. His Lübeck-based company was responsible for cutting, sewing and laying the yellow nylon fabric on the piers. 

On his website, Christo describes the feeling of walking on them as if one is walking on water, or on the back of a whale. This project, like his other outdoor artworks, are vulnerable to the weather, which is something that he loves. "This is not a picture, not a movie and not television, but reality," Christo told DW.

Now, the project has, in fact, become a movie that's sure to interest those who couldn't experience it for themselves. The film promises both action-packed scenes and a sensitive, humorous portrait of the artist at work. Christo - Walking on Water opens in German cinemas on April 11.

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