Controversial Art: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s ‘Over the River’ Project


Christo and Jeanne-Claude show how hard it is to drape a river in fabric. 

Known for their controversial outdoor art installations, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were an artistic power duo. The husband-wife team made massive, site-specific installations like “The Gates” in Central Park, “Wrapped Coast” in Australia and “The Umbrellas” in Japan.

Jeanne-Claude passed away in 2009, but Christo has continued to work, currently involved in two ongoing projects. If he can manage to get through the legal obstacles, he will drape the Arkansas River in Colorado with fabric. His second project, which would be his first permanent installation, is called “The Mastaba,” a proposed structure in the United Arab Emirates made of 410,000 oil drums.

But it’s not easy to drape a river in fabric, and not just because of the logistics. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Over the River project in Colorado is so controversial that a federal lawsuit has been brought against the Bureau of Land Management’s approval of it. The project would cover almost 6 miles of the river. As ROAR, the organization behind the lawsuit, explains, “the proposed Art Project will be constructed almost entirely within a critically sensitive area designated by the federal government as the Arkansas Canyonlands Area of Critical Environmental Concern.”

This isn’t the first time that Christo’s work has been criticized. In fact, the Christo and Jeanne-Claude website has an entire section that is intended as a response to critique from environmentalists, reminding naysayers that, “Christo and Jeanne-Claude are the cleanest artists in the world, all is removed, their large scale works of art are temporary.”

But while temporary, and potentially classified as “environmental art,” the projects are costly, both in terms of money and time. In an interview with the New York Times,  Christo outlined what he has gone through for “Over the River.”

All of our pieces are meant to be interacted with. For example, one of the reasons we chose the Arkansas River for “Over the River” is because it’s very accessible. So, before we even began, we had to go present to the chamber of commerce in the towns of Salida and Cañon City. They gathered citizens, and we presented the project and our past work. Almost all the land along the river for the project is owned by the Bureau of Land Management. We prepared a 2,000-page application and report, which ended up costing over a million dollars. The federal government looks at that study and says, “Okay, now we’re going to hire a group of engineers to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement and you will pay for that study.” So that study ended up costing $2.5 million dollars. Then we were summoned to present in an auditorium in Washington, to give a lecture to 700 employees of the B.L.M., so that their experts could ask questions about the project.

The ultimate cost of such an endeavor?

For the “Over the River” project, I still can’t tell you when it will be installed. But I can tell you we’ve already spent $14 million on it. We are probably the only artists in the world who have a 2,000-page book on a work of art that doesn’t exist.

Christo is no newbie when it comes to opposition. In fact, it seems that most of his and Jeanne-Claude’s projects were not without controversy. According to the Denver Post, “He and Jeanne Claude spent 26 years fighting to erect 7,503 fabric gates in New York City’s Central Park in 2005. They negotiated for 32 years before wrapping 178 trees in a Swiss park in 1998.”

But the opposition in Colorado has been intense. “I’m not a masochist! I did not choose to have the process be so complicated. And sometimes it’s very nasty. In Colorado, we needed to have the sheriff at the meetings because people would come with guns,” Christo told “The New York Times.” That’s not to say that all of Colorado is against him; the project has been just as unifying as it has been divisive

Will the river be draped in fabric? Ultimately, only time will tell whether Christo or his opposition will win.

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Image: cisc1970

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.