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Given the dramatic and public nature of the works he and his late wife Jeanne-Claude have created, it’s hardly surprising that the artist Christo has been the subject of scads of documentaries, several of them by Albert Maysles and company. Now newcomer Andrey Paounov gets into the game with Walking on Water, which follows as the octogenarian artist builds a massive floating bridge across a scenic lake in Italy. Though it starts uneventfully, the doc perks up in its second half, highlighting the kind of practical headaches nearly no other artist in the world has to contend with.
The doc’s first third, especially for anyone without a longstanding interest in Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s career, threatens to drown in the mundane details of maintaining an art practice that requires public approval. We watch as Christo visits elementary school kids, goes to charity events, and sits in droning bureaucratic meetings to hash out details for this latest effort. For a while, it seems that the doc may be about the silly technical issues that follow him around, from dodgy microphone and Skype connections to his inability to figure out how a classroom’s smart whiteboard works.
Then the artist and his operations director Vladimir Yavachev head out to the site about to be transformed, and things slowly get more interesting.
Having listened to Christo’s excited sales pitch for the art work — you will “walk on the water!,” he warbles — the actual technical details of the piece are more mundane. Its title, The Floating Piers, is a much more accurate reflection of the piece, in which a vast chain of interlocking plastic cubes creates a long pedestrian bridge from the mainland to (and around) a tiny inhabited island. Though attractive in the artist’s signature way (especially once it’s covered in yellow cloth), it’s hardly as magical as the hype suggests.
It is, though, fun to watch the thing being assembled, and amusing to see Christo get persnickety with both volunteers and longtime associates. Paounov doesn’t point out that at least some of his seeming anal retentiveness is wholly justified by past experiences: A woman was killed in 1991 when high winds tore a giant umbrella free from one of Christo’s installations.
Longtime admirers may start panicking on Christo’s behalf when, on this artwork’s opening day, local authorities fail to control traffic as they have promised. Staffers watch CCTV monitors as it seems that everyone in this part of Italy has shown up to walk on the water. “I guarantee there will be an accident,” promises the bearlike Yavachev, who comes in as Christo’s hotheaded enforcer on day two, insulting officials to their faces and, when they fail to act, calling for the piers to be evacuated immediately. Only after he and the artist have publicly threatened to close the exhibit do the gears of bureaucracy start to turn. Cue the happy montage of the rest of the planned 16-day event, as locals enjoy the views without feeling like part of a mob.
Now it’s time for Christo to be a public man again, going out to the piers and taking a victory lap in a helicopter. Then back to the hotel, for a long scene of his fastidious packing regimen — and off to Abu Dhabi, to scout possibilities for his next creation.
Production company: Kotva Films
Director: Andrey Paounov
Producers: Valeria Giampietro, Izabella Tzenkova
Editors: Andrey Paounov, Anastas Petkov
Composers: Saunder Jurriaans, Danny Bensi
Venue: DOC NYC
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