It was a pilgrimage he had to make.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art director and CEO Julián Zugazagoitia has been an avid admirer of Bulgarian artist Christo’s environmental-scaled projects since the artist and his partner, Jean-Claude, wrapped the Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris in 1985. Zugazagoitia was in his twenties back then, studying art history and contributing cultural articles to the Excélsior daily newspaper in his native Mexico.
Zugazagoitia vividly recalls his first interview with Christo and Jeanne-Claude (who died in 2009), when he and a handful of other journalists met the artists at an embankment where the couple had a boat. “They made me feel as if I was even bigger than The New York Times arts correspondents,” he recalled. The experience was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the artists and the future museum director.
In June, Zugazagoitia was in Europe visiting the Art Basel international art fair in Switzerland and stopping in Madrid to see the Nelson’s Caravaggio painting in the “Caravaggio and the Painters of the North” exhibition at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. He had also made reservations at a hotel in Predore, Italy, on Lake Iseo, where Christo was unveiling his latest project, Floating Piers.
Kansas Citians may remember when Christo wrapped the Loose Park walkways with fabric in 1977-78. At Lake Iseo, he created a nearly two-mile-long floating walkway out of high-density polyethylene cubes, which he covered in shimmering saffron-colored fabric similar to that used in Loose Park. From June 18 to July 3, visitors could “walk on water,” following the walkway’s path to two small islands in the lake.
Zugazagoitia arrived on the project’s opening day. Roads were closed and there were hordes of people. “I had to hitchhike,” he said, “because all of the nearby hotels had been taken. I got a ride to a shopping mall in the middle of nowhere and then took a bus to the site of the artwork.”
But a walk on the floating piers was not to be. Thunderstorm warnings meant the walking on water experience was off for the day. After a bit of maneuvering, Zugazagoitia managed to get a ticket for a ferry from the mainland to Monte Isola, the larger of the two islands, where he was able to walk along the fabric-lined shore and get a closer view of the walkways leading off to the second, smaller island, San Paolo. The difficulties and obstacles of getting there melted away.
“Surpassing all of those things made it feel more worthwhile,” Zugazagoitia said. He snapped pictures and marveled at Christo’s unfailing ability to make land art “emotional, experiential, and participatory.”
“There was a sense of orange all over,” he said. “Seeing nature framed by straight lines is like a drawing in space.”
Despite the artists’ long history of presenting popular public projects, Zugazagoitia said, the Italian press greeted Floating Piers with the now predictable questions: “Is this art? Who’s paying for it? Why not build a hospital instead?”
“What I like is that there is no message,” he reflected, noting that Floating Piers, like Pont Neuf Wrapped and The Gates in New York City in 2005, “provide an opportunity for social connection, to engage in conversation about whether it is art — or not — with anyone.”
For his part, “I went on this pilgrimage because Christo always shows you something in a different way,” Zugazagoitia said. “That’s what art does.”
Zugazagoitia also admires the total freedom Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who helped conceive the Floating Piers in 1970, have always brought to their projects. “They don’t do commissions. They do a project in order to see it themselves. There’s a childlike innocence to what drives them: ‘It’s my idea and I want to see it realized.’”
“There’s a generosity about everything they do,” he added. “They always pay for their projects completely, including security; they pay the city for police and ambulance. They’re giving something very unique.”
Next up for Christo? “Over the River,” a plan to suspend nearly six miles of silvery fabric panels along a stretch of the Arkansas River in south-central Colorado.
“We all are anxiously waiting for him to get the permits for his river project for the next pilgrimage!” Zugazagoitia said.