Notes on Christo’s ‘The Floating Piers’ at Lake Iseo

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To get from Verona to Sulzano, first you have to get a train about 50 miles West, to Brescia. From there you can get another train that takes you through Paderno and Bornato-Calino, on towards Lake Iseo and its surrounding villages — Iseo, Pilzone, Sulzano, Sale Marasino and so on. Typically, this journey takes about an hour, half an hour each leg. On Tuesday, June 28th, this journey took me four and a half hours.

I’d booked my tickets online a week or so previously. I’d set a whole itinerary for the day, so by 9am I was at Verona Porta Nuova station and ready for my train at 9:30. The train to Brescia was a breeze, genuinely. Turns out when you buy a train ticket in Italy you’re buying a seat, so the number of people in each carriage is the same as the number of seats. You know you’re from London when a balanced seat-to-passenger ratio seems less courteous than it does inefficient.

At Brescia, I made my way toward the ticket office and asked about trains to Sulzano. ‘You’ll need to go outside the station,’ I was told, ‘and walk around to Platform 2. It’s been set up as a special platform.’

‘Okay, thanks, and I have a ticket for the 10:30 train, is that right?’

‘You should be fine, but as I said, you’ll have to go round and join the platform.’

When I get to platform 2, I’m greeted by a line of people running the entire length of the platform, ten feet wide. There must have been about a thousand people there. Optimistically, I tell myself that they must all be chancers. ‘Excuse me,’ I ask someone in a hi-vis. ‘I’ve got a ticket for the 10:30 train?’

‘This is the queue to join the train.’

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So it begins. Turns out that twenty miles away at Lake Iseo, the small town of Sulzano has become so overloaded with people that pretty much everything has ground to a halt. The local authorities had anticipated there would be interest, so they’d organised for more trains to run between Brescia and Sulzano. The only problem is, there’s only one line for both directions of travel, so the only point where trains can pass each other is when the line splits at train stations. More trains, more complication, more trains sat on station platforms waiting for an approaching train to pass before they can move safely forward.

So we’re told trains won’t be leaving Brescia for at least an hour, and once that train gets moving, it could be up to three hours for the next one. Cue groans, lots of ticket waving, strategic line jumping and passive-aggressive shoving. At 12:30, two and a half hours later, I finally manage to get on a train, slowly creeping towards Sulzano.

Once you get to Sulzano, the problem becomes pretty clear. This is a village by a lake in the mountains of Northern Italy with a population of roughly 2000 people. Conservative estimates expected 30 000 visitors a day. News channels were reporting 700 000 people visiting daily. Think of the effect Glastonbury Festival has on the local population each year, then drop that on a village that has had absolutely no experience in this kind of thing before and no opportunity to prepare.

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Another town, another queue, but finally, at last, for the main attraction. First conceptualised by the artist over forty years ago, revisited throughout the decades in projects that were never realised, Christo’s concept of a floating walkway had finally come to fruition at Lake Iseo. Two years of preparation had led to this moment, and on June 18th The Floating Piers would open for just sixteen days. Once your feet were stood on the rippling orange cloth that snaked through Sulzano’s streets, you knew that you were close, and could breathe a sigh of relief. By this point it was 1:30pm, the sky was clear and it was about 32°c. Organisers had resorted to just shooting a fire hose into the air to keep us cool. No complaints. Half an hour later we were finally allowed to walk down to the waterfront.

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The experience of walking on the pier is difficult to put into words. Constructed from 220 000 polyethelene cubes, the structure ripples and sways with every movement of water, and when the lifeboats and ferries passed close to the edge, the entire surface would rise and fall. It was like walking on a pavement where every tile is constantly fluctuating. One person described it as like walking on the back of a whale.

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The photos that had been shared in the build-up gave me some impression of what to expect, but I hadn’t been prepared for the sheer scope and scale of the project; 3 kilometres of walkway floating barely a foot above water level, connecting two completely isolated islands with the mainland for the first time ever.

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As you stood halfway across the first walkway, you’d look up at Monte Isola in front of you, and then look back in the direction you’d come from, and realise your current perspective was one that would be otherwise physically impossible. There’s a sort of symbology about mountains and bodies of water; one of substance and magnitude, and you’re surrounded by them on every side, but then you’re stood on this man-made structure, literally floating, defying the limitations of both the land and the water.

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Once you’d reached Monte Isola, you walked around the mountain’s edge to the next pier, a triangular structure connecting Monte Isola to Sao Paolo, a tiny private island, and then back to Monte Isola. The first walkway was the longest of the three, and after ten minutes of walking in a straight line along the water you get another feeling of the jarring physicality of what you’re doing. Looking over to the other walkway, you can feel the movement going on all around you. Across the lake you can see the ripples and waves of the water ebbing and flowing, whilst the triangle enclosed by the two walkways lies almost completely still.

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At Sao Paolo, having walked almost 2 miles in the afternoon sun, people took cover beneath the trees that climbed over the walled enclosure of the island. For the first time ever, the inhabitants of this house had to put up with people peaking over the rear wall of their garden, which would otherwise be a sheer drop into water. And raising their cameras over the wall to take photos of the family trying to relax on their upper balcony. It was all pretty bizarre.

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After making my way back to Monte Isola via the second walkway, I decided to walk up the mountain roads and look down onto the lake. The visual effect of these thick, rigid orange lines cutting across an idyllic mountain landscape was completely surreal, amplified by the constant stream of tiny silhouettes slowly making their way around in varying directions. I ended up spending about 6 hours that day, walking back and forth, exploring and taking in the experience, wishing I could stay and enjoy it longer, whilst having to accept the necessary transience of the project. Christo himself has said that anyone can create something permanent; that true courage is creating something that is destined to vanish.

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As with all of his and Jeanne-Claude’s projects, Christo denies any deeper meaning to The Floating Piers. The objective was simply to transform an environment and create a way of experiencing the landscape in a new way; to create something aesthetically beautiful. It’s difficult, however, to find yourself overwhelmed by the experience and not try to read deeper. Beyond the obvious religious symbology — official flyers and leaflets invited you to ‘walk on water’ — there was a strong sense of the power of human endeavour, and man’s transformation of Earth. Only recently, a study announced that Earth had officially entered the ‘Anthropocene’, an entirely new geological phase defined by man’s impact on the planet. And then here you were, stood on something transient that had completely altered the environment in which it was placed against all natural laws.

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A few days previously, I met two guys from Berlin, one of whom had heard rumours that so many people were visiting Sulzano that the piers were beginning to buckle under the weight. ‘It’s quite good timing for Christo, if you think about it,’ he said, ‘considering everything going on with the refugee crisis right now.’

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And whilst the distinction between privileged Europeans experiencing an art installation and refugees escaping conflict is an important one, there was definitely a certain symbolism to a series of transient pathways, connecting previously separated landmasses through a tenuous path across water, drawing thousands of people from every direction to a town whose local infrastructure was fundamentally unable to cope with the sheer volume of people it was now up against.

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And whilst the response from everyone looking over at Lake Iseo over the past few weeks has been overwhelmingly envious and enthusiastic of Christo’s work in the area, reception in the local community was markedly split whilst I was there. On the one hand, local businesses were experiencing possibly the biggest boom they’d ever seen; one bakery at Monte Isola was shifting trays of focaccia so fast the bread was being sliced up and served to waiting customers before it could even reach the counter. On the other hand, residents without an immediate financial gain had effectively seen their whole community shut down for 3 weeks with little assistance; Mario, the pensioner I stayed with one village over from Sulzano explained the driving permit system to me. If you wanted to drive through Sulzano you needed a particular permit that wasn’t given to him. They had, however, given him a driving permit for Monte Isola, despite him not even living on the island.

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All that aside, it was difficult to put the whole thing into words — and I say this as I try to do exactly that. The decision to go was a sheer whim. I’ve been familiar with Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work for a few years and, like most people, find the whole concept fascinating. It was after I watched the documentary about the 1974 Valley Curtain project that something deeper hit me. That idea of simply altering an environment and making people view it in a different way; the paradoxical notion of using a curtain not to conceal, but to reveal something else. The opportunity to experience a Christo project in person was impossible to pass up, so I went. And, as I said before, the experience was such that you felt like it should be there forever, but you had to accept that it was destined to vanish as quickly as it appeared.

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A few days later in Verona I cast my mind back to that line of people at Brescia train station. Hundreds of people caged in by police and officials, each holding papers and documents in their hands saying they were supposed to be going somewhere. The officials insisted they were doing everything they could but were equally lacking in answers. They knew we would be able to move forward eventually, they just weren’t sure when, or how. You can only hope that they all see the parallels between a group of people demanding to get on a train to a tiny village out of entitlement to art, and a group of people hoping they’ll one day get on a train, or a boat, to safer shores, out of sheer desperation. The Floating Piers were transient, but the ideas they confronted — albeit by chance — are much more enduring.

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