As the curious, double-decker barge approached the causeway, waves of applause and shouts of “bravo Christo”, “bella” and “grazie Christo” erupted from crowds who stood, improbably, on the surface of Italy’s Lake Iseo.
They had come for The Floating Piers, Christo's first major public installation since The Gates in 2005, when the artist and his career-long collaborator – and wife – Jeanne-Claude, placed 7,503 saffron-coloured fabric panels in New York's Central Park.
Standing on the top deck of the barge, the diminutive 81-year-old acknowledged the public response to The Floating Piers humbly, like a reluctant sporting hero on a victory parade – but for the scrum of academics, students, publicists and journalists who witnessed the scene, the spontaneous outpourings of appreciation were as overwhelming as they were unexpected.
Here was a festive and distinctly non-art-world crowd – sunburnt holidaymakers, dog walkers, parents with small children, the elderly and the infirm – recognising the power of art in a manner more usually associated with a rock concert or major sporting event.
“We have created a space for people to go nowhere. They don’t come to go shopping or to see their friends – they come to go to nowhere,” the Bulgarian-born artist said with delight, revelling in the pulling power of his latest build-it-and-they-will-come creation.
"We don't even charge people to come and see it. The Floating Piers is an extension of the street and belongs to everyone."
Visible even to airline passengers flying 13,000 feet overhead, the artist’s installation stretched from the picturesque town of Sulzano on the eastern shore of Lake Iseo to the usually isolated Monte Isola, before reaching out to surround the minuscule Isola di San Paolo, a former monastery that is now owned by the arms-manufacturing Beretta family.
Constructed from 200,000 interconnected, air-filled, high-density polythene cubes, the three-kilometres of piers formed a sort of floating, temporary beach held in place by 190 concrete anchors, each weighing 5.5 tonnes, that were installed 90 metres below on the lake bed.
Installation of the piers began towards the end of last year and was completed just before the opening on June 18. A team of 60 skilled workers, including deepwater divers, wrapped the floating structure in 100,000 square metres of yellow, nylon fabric that then had to be stitched together on site using portable, battery-powered sewing machines.
“The most important thing is the island [Monte Isola],” Christo explained. “There is no lake anywhere in Europe where there are so many people living in such an incredible situation. It’s such a huge island, with a population of 2000 people and yet they have no bridge. They go everywhere by boat – but for 16 days they can walk on the water!”
The inhabitants of Monte Isola were not the only people to make the most of Christo’s shimmering saffron installation, which not only undulated with the waves but also changed colour in response to variations in humidity and light.
When The Floating Piers opened on June 18, 50,000 visitors a day flocked to see them – and as the 16 day installation neared its conclusion, the numbers rocketed.
By the final weekend, an estimated 4,000 pedestrians an hour were making their way along the five-and-a-half kilometres of lakeshore between Sulzano and Iseo, the nearest town, having ditched their cars to make the final stage of their art pilgrimage on foot.
To put things in perspective the 2012 London Olympics, which also ran for 16 days, is estimated to have attracted 590,000 visitors, but at a considerably higher cost than the €15 million (Dh61m) that was required for The Floating Piers, which was estimated to have attracted almost a million visitors by the time it closed on July 3.
Among those visitors was a small group of students from the UAE, with their academic mentors. They were the shortlisted finalists for the 2016 Christo & Jeanne-Claude Award, an annual art prize designed to encourage students in the Emirates to design and build an artwork that can be publicly exhibited and enjoyed.
Invited to Italy as Christo’s personal guests for a behind-the-scenes tour of The Floating Piers, the group also included American architect Daniel Chavez, who was mentor to the team that won the award in 2015, and to one of this year’s runners-up.
“This is my second year,” said the visiting assistant professor from the American University of Sharjah. “My students won first prize in 2015 with an abaya-inspired piece that explored what it was like to be covered, but this was a great year to win. How often do you have a Christo project to see? Every 10 years?
“He really is an environmental artist in because he wants you to experience nature and I think, for students in the UAE, who sometimes don’t really experience nature directly because of the challenging environment, this is a really important experience.”
After a lifetime spent trying to secure permission for projects that seem impossible, The Floating Piers also held a special poignancy for Christo, not least because it is the first installation the artist has realised since the death of Jeanne-Claude in 2009.
“In 50 years, Jean-Claude and I realised 22 projects but we failed to get permission for 37,” he said. “With some projects, when people aren’t interested we don’t want to do them any more but others stay in our hearts and minds and we try everything to realise them.”
At the age of 81, Christo admits that completing future projects is now very much a race against time – but thanks to his experience with The Floating Piers, which only took two years to complete, he remains optimistic about future projects, including Over the River, which is planned for the Arkansas River in Colorado, and The Mastaba, which Christo has wanted to build in Abu Dhabi ever since he first visited the emirate in 1979.
“I said to my friends that I was going to be 80 years old in 2015 and that I wanted to do something very fast because I didn’t know for how much longer I was going to live and so that is why this project was accomplished in less than two years,” the white-haired artist said, with a laugh.
“Can you imagine such a project being realised in such a short period of time? It’s incredible. It couldn’t be done in the United States, not in Japan, not in England, not in France, not in Germany, not Switzerland. Everybody would have denied their permission.”