Review: Walking on Water Reveals Grand Art to be a Great Headache

The scope and scale of the public art created by Christo and Jeanne-Claude is undeniable; for decades, the artists (and spouses) inspired awe and wonder around the world, with installations that challenged our definitions of space and invited us to be a part of them rather than just observe them. Though Jeanne-Claude died in 2009 and Christo is now nearly 85 years old, the surviving artist mounted his first solo public piece (based on an idea the pair had back in the 1970s), a project that exceeded all expectations in size, complexity and popularity. In Walking on Water, filmmaker Andrey Paounov chronicles the three months leading up to the opening of “The Floating Piers,” a massive series of paths created by floating, interlocked cubes covered in vibrant (durable) yellow fabric that give the sense of walking with the waves.

Walking on Water
Image courtesy of Kino Lorber

And in the moments when Paounov’s camera focuses on the art, Walking on Water is a testament to the creative capabilities of humans, particularly on a scale as grand as Christo manages. Such accomplishments are rare in the 21st century, an age where a witty tweet is often as inventive as any of us get in a day. The arial shots in particular are breathtaking, the vivid gold walkways dotted with pedestrians contrasting against the rich blue of the water of Lake Iseo, the Italian lake where the work was installed. One can only imagine what Christo must’ve been thinking as he boarded a helicopter to get that unique perspective for himself.

One need not imagine, on the other hand, what Christo is thinking the rest of the time. Because, though he is likely many things, Christo is not shy. In fact, he seems like a bit of a jerk, at least as far as what we have to go on in the film. Pretty much everything frustrates and pisses him off, from the files an assistant can’t seem to find on the computer to the plans for an upcoming book to the whiteboard he wants to use in a classroom where he’s speaking. And that’s just in the first twenty minutes. He shouts and blusters, huffing and puffing at anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path; it all reeks of an inconsiderate, privileged ego used to getting its way, and it’s exhausting.

As the opening of “The Floating Piers” approaches and a million different details must be considered, Christo’s project manager Vladimir takes on the role of Chief Jerk, doing his fair share of huffing and puffing at a team of local officials grateful to be involved but always just one wrong move away from incurring either of their wraths. Once the exhibition opens and thousands more people show up than were anticipated, it’s an impressive bit of mental gymnastics Vladimir manages to somehow blame the town for the influx and the subsequent safety concerns. Anyone who’s ever planned an event, let alone a wildly anticipated, time-limited art installation by one of the most renowned artists of our time, might have had the forethought to consider crowd management, no? By the time one of the town officials yells right back at Vladimir and storms off in a huff, I felt like cheering for him (and sort of wished I could join him in walking away from it all).

Somewhere in all the chaos, there’s probably an argument for passion being what drives Christo and his crew to such a frenzied, tumultuous approach to their work. They care so much. The stakes are so high. It’s impossible not to get worked up in the midst of it all… Maybe. Maybe there’s so much more to working with Christo than we see in the film. Maybe he’s a very different person when he’s not days away from a new exhibition. But then, plenty of great art has been created without making those who help you build it feel like the dirt under your shoes. And unfortunately, based on the access we get in Walking on Water, the grandeur of Christo’s work is all but lost in the exhausting emotional toll of getting there.

Then again, maybe that’s the art in a film about creating art?

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Lisa Trifone
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