Walking The Floating Piers

June 2016

You can still do it. Until July 3rd, you can walk on water if you can get to Lake Iseo in the Italian lake district and then get through the packed crowds and onto the Piers at Sulzano.

If you’ve been following the media reports, you already know that The Floating Piers is the realization of conceptual artist Christo’s long-held dream, a project that’s been in the planning for many years. Christo, whose full name is Christo Vladimiroff Javacheff was born in Bugaria and educated at the Fine Arts Academies in Sofia and Vienna. Jeanne- Claude de Guillebon, his partner in art and life for forty-seven years and who passed away in 2009, came from a French military family in Morocco. Amazingly, they were born on the same day, June 13, 1935.

Kay and I have come to know the work of this remarkable couple gradually. Sometime in the 1970s we happened to see a film about Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California. At the time it struck me as outlandish that someone would build an eighteen-foot high “fence” 24.5 miles long through Northern California’s back country out of nylon fabric only to remove it two weeks after completion in such a way as to leave no trace that it had ever existed.

During the ensuing years I would occasionally read or hear of Christo and Jeanne- Claude’s other projects. Some were very public, like completely wrapping the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris and Berlin’s Reichstag in special fabrics. These projects and others shared certain certain characteristics: all involved textiles, all remained in place for short times, and all were collaborative efforts invloving dozens of specialists and sometimes even hundreds of helpers. Today, they exist only in their media coverage and in the memories of those who helped and witnessed them.

It was in February of 2005 that one of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects took on a greater reality for us. It was then that they installed more than 7,000 vinyl “gates” hung with free-flowing nylon fabric along 23 miles of Central Park’s walkways. Kay and I just happened to be in New York at the time and were delighted to watch the bright saffron-colored panels moving in the breeze against the dark monotones of the park’s leafless trees. We walked through them along with many others, and were a party to the conversations that The Gates elicited.

Now it is ten years after, and time for another of Christo’s experiential phenomena. This time our participation was no accident. Kay read about The Floating Piers last year and booked a hotel room in a small town on Lake Iseo last December. We also chose to arrive and walk the Piers near the moment of their opening. That was fortunate as the crowds, while large the day of our walk in the company of our German friends Conny and Jocki, have since become enormous, numbering more than double the 40,000 visitors per day that were expected and planned for.

Until now Lake Iseo has been the least well-known of the Italian lakes. Its closest neighbor is Lake Garda, and Iseo just doesn’t have the infastructure to handle hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving in such a concentrated stream. There are small lake ferries known as traghetti, and there are trains and buses. But even running non-stop almost twenty-four hours a day, these can’t handle the multitudes.

The Piers are covered with a tough, golden fabric of nylon supported by 220,000 polyethelene cubes that lock together. They are fifty-one feet wide and extend for almost two miles into the lake, connecting two islands with each other and the mainland. The fabric has been laid in such a way that longitudinal pleats form, giving the surface a striped appearance when the sunlight forms shadows along them. The idea is for the Piers to look different, depending on the time of day and the lighting conditions. The Piers are not solid underfoot; they move up and down gently under the pressure of thousands of feet and the motion of the water. They are also unshaded, so that moving slowly along them in a human file under a broiling sun felt paradoxically like walking on a desert surrounded by water. With her susceptibility to motion sickness, this was more a physical ordeal for Kay than for me, yet by the time we reached the tiny island of San Paolo both of us flopped down on the nylon surface and lay flat to rest among dozens of others in the shade of a building.

It was a tiring walk. In addition to crossing the water, the nylon path started on land and later ran quite a distance along the shore of Monte Isola, the larger of the two islands. We calculated that we walked a total of at least ten kilometers that afternoon, and by the time the four of us were able to squeeze onto a bus and return to the town of Iseo all we could think about was finding cold beer.

Afterward, recovered from our fatigue, we were thankful for the having walked The Floating Piers. It was a unique experience that can never be repeated.