This past week, the New York Times ran an article on Christo’s most recently proposed work “Over the River,” in particular, the stir it has caused with the Bureau of Land Management. Recently, the bureau “issued what may be the first ever draft environmental impact statement purely about art” in relation to the project. Christo, famous for draping fabric over all sorts of land forms, including a curtain across the Rifle Gap in the Colorado Rockies and 6.5 million square feet of hot pink fabric around 11 islands in Biscayne Bay near Miami, has recently proposed a project which will cover 42 miles of the Arkansas River with fabric panels.
Christo is known for his bold statements and large artistic projects that stir environmental concern, however this one seems to beat them all. The article cites the importance of the land and ecosystem on which Christo wants to build: “The deep-cut gorges and canyons of the Arkansas River where Christo hopes to build the project speak to the deep time processes of geology and creation. The area is also a key habitat for bighorn sheep, raptor and fish.” While the article does not mention Christo’s specific views on the natural habitat he may be disrupting, he is quoted as saying he intended this stir in the bureau and among audiences as “part of the artistic vision itself “(and has, in fact, wished for an environmental impact statement from the bureau for years.) Wanting to cause a stir and having no concern for the environment (as many critics accuse) are two entirely different things of course, and I’m not willing to make any judgments on Christo’s ultimate motive. This story does, however, leaves me questioning how the artist’s relationship with the land in his particular case might be construed in terms of a Christian view of artistry. In a previous post, I mentioned the connection between our view of creation and our view of art, and cited Wendell Berry as saying that how artists use their materials is directly related to their view of Creation and is, therefore, of ultimate religious significance.
So my question: is Christo bringing harm to the environment in which he works by taking on such large scale, invasive projects, or is he actually integrating art and nature in a way that previous artists had never imagined, and actually doing something that we might understand as theologically significant? Several things come into play when I think about this question: the intention of the artist in producing the work, the audience appeal of the work (and in fact the artist—he is typically understood as the picture of the strange, and often overly pretentious, modern artist), the environmental effect of the work, and the particular materials he uses and how he uses them. I’d be interested to hear how you readers might approach this question. Can you think of anything else that might come into play when considering the theological significance of the relationship between art and the environment?
(1) Artist’s Rendering of “Over the River Project,” from overtheriver.org
(2) Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, easyart.com