The documentary Walking on Water is relatively simple, but sometimes a straightforward story ends up a miss. Artist Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude worked for over 50 years to develop a storied career. As practitioners of environmental art, or work that is meant to exist in the natural world and subjected to the natural world through storms, snow, earthquakes, heat, etc. Their work is not meant to be particularly “deep,” rather, it should be viewed as beauty.
The project that is the focus of this documentary, The Floating Piers (2016), is attributed to both artists, and it was also in the works before Jeanne-Claude’s death. From the start we learn that Christo is still actively creating his work in his studio, where he doesn’t rely on assistants in the same way some other major artists like Jeff Koons does. He draws what he wants and at some point sells those drawings; in this case, he sold his drawings as the actual exhibition was going on.
In Walking on Water, Christo says, “Art is not a profession […] not a 9-5.” He funds his projects himself, but in doing so and due to the public nature of the work, the art doesn’t always get a green light. According to the film, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have “realized 23 projects and have failed to get permission for 47.” That’s slightly less than half.
The film follows Christo after the idea, and starts in the process of getting approval to execute the site-specific work and the actual exhibition. Much of the film is about stubbornness, from the artist himself to his assistants, the local Italian government, and even the participating viewers. The opening day of the new project exceeded all expectations, and in the days immediately following, the attendance skyrocketed. They were projected to have around 15,000 visitors each day, but the very first day had 30,000. Imagine the nightmare of any sort of accident happening on the water. Now imagine that accident potential for 16 straight days. The artist and his assistants determined that it was unsafe and needed to be shut down until safety could be guaranteed.
While The Floating Piers works on its own, the documentary is less than exciting. Conflict in general is interesting, but there wasn’t as much of a sense of urgency as expected once the trouble started, since the film made it clear that the issue would be resolved safely. Considering everything that happens, it just isn’t captivating. The music feels heavy in its push to create the urgency in moments where it doesn’t work as well. The attendance and safety issue takes everyone by surprise, but the film’s edit doesn’t push that feeling through to the end.
Perhaps one of the most stressful parts, for me at least, was watching Christo gets his eyelashes trimmed. I didn’t know that this was a thing, let alone that anyone would allow a pair of scissors so close to one’s eye. Maybe that’s just residual John Wick anxiety, but sharp objects shouldn’t be so close to eyeballs.