Putting a Price on Environmental Art

June 29, 2016
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One of the other editors here at Forester Media pointed out to me last week the latest work by Christo, the Bulgarian-born artist known for his massive, temporary environmental art installations. The new work is called “The Floating Piers,” and it consists of about 2 miles of walkways on Italy’s Lake Iseo. The piers, a bit more than 50 feet wide, are made from polyethylene cubes covered with yellow fabric and anchored to the lake bottom. They connect the mainland town of Sulzano in northern Italy to two islands usually accessible only by boat. You can see photos here.

As with some of Christo’s other installations—and there have been many over the years—this one is even more popular than expected; more than twice the anticipated number of visitors have arrived to walk between the islands, and authorities are now closing the walkways at night so that repairs can be made. They will be in place until July 3.

Past installations by Christo, whose full name is Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, and his late wife Jeanne-Claude have included the surrounding of 11 Florida islands with bright pink plastic for two weeks in 1983; “The Gates,” a series of more than 7,000 5-meter-high structures hung with yellow fabric and placed on paths throughout New York’s Central Park in 2005; the wrapping of 178 trees with silver fabric in a park in Basel, Switzerland, for several weeks in 1998; and “The Umbrellas,” a simultaneous installation in southern California and Ibaraki, Japan, in 1991. For this project, thousands of huge umbrellas—yellow ones for the US and blue ones for Japan—were put in place and anchored to heavy steel bases; each umbrella measured more than 28 feet wide and nearly 20 feet high. Unfortunately, the strong California winds proved to be more than a match for the weight of the bases, causing at least one umbrella to become airborne and fatally strike a visitor; other people were also injured, and the exhibit was quickly closed.

What’s the point of describing all this, you ask? Over the years, as popular as these and other installations have been with the public, many people have questioned the environmental cost of the projects. (The monetary cost has been questioned as well, although Christo and Jeanne-Claude typically financed the projects through donations, the selling of souvenirs and drawings, and the like.) Although the artists have obtained permits from many government agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers for projects in the US, some still have questioned the effect, for example, of millions of square feet of plastic covering the near-shore habitat around the islands in Biscayne Bay. On occasion environmental groups have filed lawsuits to stop the projects, as in the case of “Over the River,” a plan to suspend large fabric panels above a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River.

It’s impossible—and probably futile—to try to put a value on creations like these. Christo himself has said, “Human beings like to experience something absolutely irrational,” and he believes people value his work for the very reason that it’s of limited duration and will cease to exist. The press has not always taken the same optimistic view; an overview of his work a few years back was titled “Christo’s Controversial Art: A Timeline of Irritating People With Fabric.”

So without necessarily debating the merits of the work itself, what are your thoughts on the environmental impacts of large-scale installations like these? Have you ever been involved in an environmental impact study for anything similar—perhaps a temporary venue for a large holiday celebration or concert near a beach or lakefront? What advice would you have for others facing the task for the first time?

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines.