“More than conceptual art, Christo’s Floating Piers is really performance art”
You find yourself in the same country as the latest (rare) Christo event – what choice do you have but to try to get there? Who could resist the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to literally walk on water, crossing a stunning mountain lake on a shimmering yellow ribbon, 3 km of it?
Advance publicity for the Floating Piers project on Lake Iseo in the mountains of northern Italy revealed plans for a never before attempted engineering feat involving what is essentially a series of connected floating docks constructed out of 220,000 high-density polyethylene cubes covered with 100,000 square metres of fabric. The ambitious scale of this project, along with Christo’s international reputation is probably what drew almost half a million people (the number that had been predicted for the entire two-week event) to Iseo in the first few days of its opening. As reports came in of how difficult it was to actually get there, the number of visitors increased exponentially.
Suddenly the Floating Piers, renamed passarella by Italians, was the place to be, and the place to be seen. Brad Pitt got there, after all, followed by Jude Law, Willem Dafoe and dozens of glamorous Italian celebrities – it is no coincidence that apart from “boardwalk”, passarella translates to “runway” or “catwalk”.
My own odyssey to Lago d’Iseo almost came unstuck a few times – certainly a couple of hours into struggling with the vagaries of the Trenitalia website, while chancing my first foray into the challenges of booking on Airbnb on a computer which had decided to update itself overnight, unbidden, to Windows 10, gave me a few “why I am doing this?” moments. Especially as I was simultaneously checking intermittently on the state of play at the site – reports were coming in minute by minute of problems with storms forcing temporary closures of the walkway. Added to this were stories of crowds of up to 4,000 people waiting for trains in Brescia, the nearest city; people unable to get into designated car parks abandoning their cars on the highway and walking to Iseo; ferry cancellations causing chaos, long queues assembling in Sulzano, starting point of the walk . . .
But suddenly I found I had survived the Trenitalia booking challenge – the nerve-wracking five-minute Crystal Maze countdown where you have to enter more details than they should ever need to know, or you start all over again. I had also mastered Airbnb, navigating the map showing prices going up in real time as residents exercised their understandable option to cash in on the situation, local and not so local hotels and guest houses having been booked up for weeks. Not only that, but I had found an “historic villa” on Monte Isole itself, centre of the event!
A few days after the two-week run of Floating Piers started, Christo was asked his advice on whether people should try to get to Iseo, given that it was already seriously over-subscribed. His somewhat Zen reply was along the lines of “If you have the patience, come. The journey is part of the Art. Bring water. Wear sun-screen, the sunlight really reflects off the fabric”.
I and my accomplice in this adventure, my friend Liane, decided to call the first stage “The Art of Getting There”. And we were very nearly scuppered right at the start – Liane’s train to San Benedetto del Tronto, our starting point, was suddenly cancelled and she had to hop onto a bus, due to arrive minutes before the Bologna train’s departure. Luckily she had the presence of mind to jump off the bus at the stop before the station and run the last bit – and our train was obligingly delayed for five minutes – so she just made it. After that it was relatively easy – our train was late, but so was the connecting one to Brescia.
We had reserved seats in carriage 8, which proved to be non-existent; but fortunately there were seats elsewhere. We were really bracing ourselves for Brescia, but arrived to find no lineups, plenty of seats on the Sulzano train, unbelievable luck. Maybe choosing Monday of the second week had been the right decision! (Hot tip – if you want to avoid crowds in Italy the best time is always around 1 – 3 p.m. as everyone has lunch at the same time.)The train passed slowly through fields of corn and sunflowers, vineyards and quiet little villages until it came to a standstill at Iseo, one stop from our destination. We were there almost an hour, but even this was fine; everyone was in a holiday mood, happy, excited, a totally international bunch, chattering in a dozen different languages.
Cheers went up as the train pulled out and took us on to Sulzano, where again we were expecting to line up for hours . . . and again we were pleasantly surprised. A short wait, maybe 20 minutes and suddenly we found ourselves actually on the brilliant yellow pathway – a wonderful moment. It seemed hard to believe that after leaving home at 7 a.m. here we were at 3.30 p.m. – a bit of a mission, but a successful one! It was now time to start “The Art of Being Here” phase.
What I noticed right away was that the walkway, 16 metres wide and only 35 cm above the level of the water, slopes down rather alarmingly at the edges. I would not have wanted to be there with a small child, but plenty of people had brought their children, and their dogs. In fact every age group was well represented, from tiny babies to quite elderly people who could hardly walk, some in wheelchairs. Nothing was off limits except bicycles and skateboards.
When Christo and his wife and collaborator Jean-Claude, who is rightly credited as co-creator of the project, had the idea for a floating walkway as long as 50 years ago, there was no specific location in mind. It was rejected by several countries (as 37 out of 50 of their projects have been turned down) as too risky, so all credit to Italy, with its typical cavalier attitude to Health and Safety where Art is concerned. Sadly Jean-Claude died in 2009 and so never got to see the results of all her work.
The mood was cheerful and calm, and quiet except for the sound of helicopters, transportation of choice for VIPs, and available for tours costing 50 euros. The helicopters were actually rather noisy and a bit of an intrusion at times. Diane also objected to all the little boats, rescue and otherwise, zipping around, but I really liked that. One of my lasting memories is a boat crossing the lake late at night, the fellow singing what sounded like a romantic Neapolitan love song at the top of his voice!
Walking barefoot, as recommended by Christo (who mysteriously compares it to walking on the back of a whale), it felt a little strange at first, a sensation of being on something between a trampoline and a robust waterbed; the fabric felt very smooth, but fortunately not slippery.
Guides, among a team of 500 hired for the event, placed at intervals along the path or poised nearby in little motor boats, gave gentle reminders to people to keep moving, and not to linger too long at the edges. They were rocking what I’m sure has become a highly covetable outfit – part of their pay (even signed by Christo), designed by Garage Design: in the darkest shade of navy without being black, minimalist long-sleeved t-shirts, matching bib overalls, and sun hats with brims worn in a number of stylish variations, a subtle Floating Piers logo the only decoration.
The section that leads to Peschiera, the port on Monte Isola that lies directly opposite Sulzano, is just long enough to get you used to the slight rocking underfoot, and learn how to balance and grip your feet in the right way to propel yourself forward. Peschiera offered the option of exploring the village, much of it also carpeted in yellow fabric, having a cup of tea (by supplying my own tea bag, supplies on the island having run out) and finding a spot to sit and put our feet in the deliciously cool water. We were able to observe the steady file of people crossing to the island and proceeding around the shoreline (an additional 2.5 km on land), like some kind of disorderly, balletic mass troop movement, all clearly enjoying themselves. More than conceptual art, the Floating Piers is really performance art.
A local DJ provided an amusing commentary, offers of free bottles of water for a Facebook endorsement, and urgent announcements whenever an ambulance had to get through the crowds. This was fairly frequent, as visitors succumbed to the effects of the strong sun. He was also able to inform an anxious crowd of the important first goal by Italy in their football match against Spain, the only intrusion in a merciful break from events going on in the outside world.
By this time it was apparent that, as its name suggests, Monte Isola is basically a (heavily forested) mountain, with little villages scattered around it. A very helpful lady in the tourist office confirmed my suspicions that our “historic villa” was not going to be reachable by ferry, counter to the online advice of our prospective hostess, Marisa, as most ferry services had been suspended for the duration of the show. However she was able to confirm that Marisa is a real person, and not some invention of a darknet hacker who had just stolen my money, and suggested the local minibus service, conveniently located nearby.
Monte Isole has never allowed cars, so locals (only 1800 of them living there year round) get around with motorcycles or boats. The minibus, offering incredible views of the Piers from above, took us up to Siviano in about 10 minutes. There we found Tina’s Bar, with a convivial bunch of locals watching the match, and were able to witness an important win for Italy, while enjoying a glass of icy prosecco.
Tina gave us directions to the Port of Siviano, i.e. straight down for about 15 minutes, and warned us that the path is a bit “brutal”, which it is, with nothing to hold on to. However we had a great welcome from Marisa, who showed us to a huge room with frescoed ceilings overlooking the lake. And the villa is impressive, situated right on the lake, it dates back to the Middle Ages, and has been owned by her family for the last 100 years.
Supper at the only restaurant in the port was excellent risotto made with lake fish accompanied by a glass of cold white wine – here we were able to exchange stories with other guests, some of whom had had to persuade a local boatman to ferry them to the villa.
An early start after a vital early morning cup of tea had us setting up the steep hill to the town to catch the minibus back to Peschiera – this way we were able to head out onto the longest part of the pathway that leads to Isola San Paolo, and completely surrounds it. Once a priory, the home of Cluniac monks in the 11th century, the island villa, enclosed in a walled garden, is now privately owned by the Beretta (weapons manufacturing) family of Brescia. In fact on the first day of the show, there was a small protest organized by opponents of their enterprise which provided a small setback to the proceedings.
It is a considerable stretch to reach San Paolo, but once there enough space has been provided to sit, or lie down, and have a close look at a magnificent villa that is normally closed to the public. Great care has been taken to build the walkway around trees – visitors can peer into the interior boat house cleverly concealed underneath the house.
There was time for a leisurely walk back to pick up the ferry for a scenic voyage to Iseo, and a train that left more or less on time, the start of a return journey that involved a few close calls with connections, but worked (although we noticed a big lineup at Brescia).
Has the Floating Pier installation been a success? Perhaps it has been too successful – its “no tickets, no openings, no reservations” concept really appealed to people who are used to everything being sponsored, everything being an opportunity to sell you something. However the plans to keep it open 24 hours a day had to be abandoned early on. The pressure of all those feet meant it had to be closed at night for maintenance, and for Monte Isole to be cleaned and re-provisioned.
Was the journey worth it? For me, it was definitely worth nine trains, two buses and a ferry, over 1000 km in all – and after all, many people made the pilgrimage from much further away.
All the time I was part of this experience I was trying to give a name to the particular shade of yellow/gold/orange that Christo had chosen for his extraordinary fabric, designed to change with the light. It is referred to in the press as saffron, marigold, dahlia . . . On the journey home it appeared to be everywhere, on buildings, in fields, on signs – I have decided there is only one name for it – Christo yellow.
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