Issue 5, Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Christo and Jeanne Claude. The Floating Piers, Lake Iseo. Patron, Umberta Beretta, talks about the project with Christo.

5 June 2016
Umberta Gniutti Beretta e Christo Umberta Gniutti Beretta e Christo

Forty years on and, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are back in Italy with a work designed for Lake Iseo, a water project, entitled The Floating Piers, a three kilometres walkway floating on the surface of the lake.

“The concept had existed in my head for a long time”, explains the artist, who says he had been contemplating it since the 1970s. And Lake Iseo in the province of Brescia was the ideal place. Unlike other works, The Floating Piers has taken shape very fast, thanks to the support and help of local authorities and the involvement of Franco and Umberta Beretta, longtime friends and collectors of Christo and Jeanne-Claudes’ work.

The Floating Piers is the seventh in a series of interventions interacting with water. The first was Wrapped Coast in Sydney, Australia (1968-69); followed by Running Fence, Sonora and Marin Counties, California (1972-76); Oceanfront, in Newport, Rhode Island (1974); The Pont Neuf Wrapped, in Paris (1975-85); Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Great Miami (1980-83); and Over the River, at Arkansas River, Colorado (1992).

All these projects and their plans are shown in the anthological exhibition Christo and Jeanne-Claude Water Projects, curated by Germano Celant, housed in the magnificent spaces of the Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia.

People have always played a key role in the extraordinary history of Christo and Jeanne-Claudes’ works. Important among these are the artists’ friends, who have all contributed in some way to the creation of their works worldwide. Umberta Gnutti Beretta’s mediation and practicle efforts make her a leading figure in the construction of The Floating Piers, so it seemed only right that she should conduct the opening conversation with Christo in this artmarket-blogmag new feature.

It is a free-flowing dialogue, in which the artist’s recollections, the present and objective reality, mingle in a sort of stream of consciousness. The conversation took place in the evocative atmosphere of the Isola di San Paolo, where work on the construction of the piers began, to a background sound of waves and the creaking of the floating jetty.


Workers start to encircle the island of San Paolo with the first floating elements

Workers start to encircle the island of San Paolo with the first floating elements


Umberta Gnutti Beretta: My first question is personal. You’ve carried out projects all over the world, and there’s always been a planning phase and a technical or manual phase, with the actual construction of the work involving a lot of people. Has it ever happened that something – not necessarily your fault, but, for example, one of the members of the team causing hold-ups in production or in the way the project was meant to be carried out?

Christo: Your question hits the nail on the head in the sense that our projects are all complex and unique. Nobody knows how to build them. Each project involves a variety of manual and technical skills. Every new art work that Jeanne-Claude and I conceive is a voyage. An adventure. When we start we don’t know how it will be executed.

One of the most important aspects in this process is building the team that will actually make the art work, then there’s a part that involves obtaining permission from various local authorities. Once the team has been put together, we start thinking about the technical aspects and we have to find people who understand what it is we want to do and each one will have a different task, their own specialization.

This part is a fundamental piece of the puzzle, if one of these people is missing it’s difficult to make up for the shortcoming. Here on Lake Iseo, the team is made up of young people from a Bulgarian sports academy, and they all have different skills. Look over there, as we’re talking, that scuba diver is preparing to go down and anchor the pier to the bottom of the lake. People are fundamental to this work in every way. To answer your question, I certainly do worry about something creating a hold-up.

The Floating Piers is a project that Jeanne-Claude and I started thinking about in the seventies, but never managed to carry out. We’ve finally been able to now thanks to your help. It was the same in New York, and Michael Bloomberg helped out. So it isn’t just in the technical phase, it’s also in the planning phase that the work is shared with a number of people who all contribute to the creation of the project.

Just think, when we got here for the first time, we didn’t know what The Floating Piers would be like. How the project will come out in the end can’t be planned around a table, because the scale model is different to how the project actually works in real life.

Our projects involve also a ‘secret life test’, they need to be tested, and we were able to try out the idea for The Floating Piers thanks to the help of a friend who has a property with a small lake on it in Germany, near the Danish border. This is where we did the first test of the work on a one to one scale. Not with these materials, which are of a very high quality, it was just to see what the work would be like.


UGB: Work that involves, in different ways, a lot of people…

C: Like many others, this isn’t just an art work, although it has something to do with painting and sculpture. Somebody defined this kind of work an architectural project, and that’s also true. Sometimes our works aren’t understood because they don’t fit into a museum.

Our projects are designed for spaces, they go into the space and change their context and the perception we have of it. It’s exactly as Jeanne-Claude often said, we come into the space and we borrow the space.

Our work intertwines with people’s lives and the spectator’s excitement is part of the aesthetic of the project itself. The Floating Piers isn’t a film, it’s something living, that people have physical contact with, it’s more than 3km of walkway on the water, where you can walk on piers and, through them, physically feeling the motion of the water.


At the headquarters in Montecolino, construction workers assemble the piers

At the headquarters in Montecolino, construction workers assemble the piers


UGB: As you yourself explained, your work is divided into a theoretical part, designing in the studio and then the actual production of the work. Which of these do you find most captivating personally, or emotionally?

C: Yes, all our projects have two distinct periods, the “software” period and a “hardware” period. In the software period, the work only exists inside my mind, sometimes it arose from an idea of Jeann-Claude’s, sometimes it was my idea, and in this phase, it begins to take on its own identity. In some cases,  the software period lasts a long time, like for the Reichstag, where lack of permission from the authorities stopped things. So the work was re-conceptualized, re-studied, re-designed, and it existed in my head and on paper. Thinking about it in the different moments and periods of its life brings back the feelings. After twenty-four years, the authorities finally gave their permission to go ahead and the production phase began. Then we were involved with the space, weather conditions, sun,  wind, rain, and in this phase there are many feelings, all different, with different types of involvement. For The Floating Piers, as with other works, at the beginning we didn’t know what the final result would be like. We knew on paper, but every work acquires an identity of its own during the production phase. All our works are in relation to an urban or a natural space. In the software phase, carried out in the studio, we can only imagine how the project will react with its context. Now, on the lake, we can clearly feel the movement of the water under our feet. This sensation was something we could only imagine during the planning phase in the studio. This generates excitement. At the moment the technicians are putting together the section of pier that connects the edge of the island to the lake shore…and this also exciting. When we first came here, with you, to see Lake Iseo, it was very exciting. I don’t know if I’ve answered your question, I can only say that it is the making of the work of art that excites me, it is what we are doing here, when you see the work grow, not the 15 days of final presentation of the work. 


UGB: What is it, in your opinion, that makes a work of art particularly successful?

C: Over fifty years, Jean-Claude and I made 22 projects, and had 27 refused. Sometimes they ask me how come only 22 projects in all these years of work, and it’s clear that the art milieu has no idea of what it means to carry out a project this big. Success, as whether or not people like an art work can’t be measured, whereas the number of people who visit a project can. Millions of people came to see the Reichstag in Berlin. At The Umbrellas, in Japan, it was incredible. People came with picnics, it was really experienced in a very natural way, people took off their shoes while they had their picnic, like they do at home, so there was a real feeling of familiarity between the public and the art work. In the different parts of the world where we’ve had art works, people have related to them in different ways, without constraints. There’s no ticket to pay for, so access is absolutely free. Does this combination of factors guarantee success? Perhaps. But what success is, I can’t tell you.


A diver connects a rope to one of the anchors on the lakebed to keep the piers in place

A diver connects a rope to one of the anchors on the lakebed to keep the piers in place


UGB.: Now I’m going to ask you a difficult question. I’m going to say three words that have a profound meaning in your work…

C.: A poetic question?


UGB.: The first word is “love/passion”. The second is “dream”. The third is “happiness”.

C.: They go together. When you carry out a project, as an artist and as a human being, these three elements merge.


UGB.: About the word “dream”?

C.: That’s an interesting question. People sometimes think my works are a dream. But it’s not true. That may seem odd, because although we haven’t been able to produce a lot of our projects, when I think about a project, I think of it as being possible to make, not as a dream. Because basically each one is very simple.


(editor’s note: all of Christo and Jeanne Claudes’ works have been financed entirely by the artist from the proceeds of sales of the plans of the project).

All the images are courtesy of Christo and Jeanne-Claude (


Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Floating Piers. Lago d’Iseo. Sulzano, Monte Isola, Isola di San Paolo.

June 18 – July 3, 2016


Christo e Jean Claude. Water Projects.

Museo di Santa Giulia. Brescia


Public transport to reach The Floating PiersFrom Milan, by train: special tickets costing 13€ [Trenord Day Pass] and 26€ [Family Day Pass] and with the special fare of 7€ return Brescia-Sulzano available to purchase online, from ticket offices, from self-service ticket machines and authorized agents.