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Christo's Umbrellas

Bulgarian-born Christo Javacheff, who uses only his first name, is an “environmental artist.” His large-scale projects have involved wrapping bridges and buildings, surrounding islands in Florida with pink floating plastic, filling New York’s Central Park with orange cloth “gates,” and building walls and structures out of oil barrels. Christo collaborated on these projects with his wife, Jeanne-Claude, until her death in 2009.

Transience is an essential aspect of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art. Each work requires years of preparation; but once completed it lasts only a few weeks. Then they dismantle the construction, restore the site to its original condition, and recycle all the materials. A Christo work might be likened to an enormous secular version of a Tibetan sand mandala.

In October 1991, Christo and Jeanne-Claude unfurled 1,760 large yellow umbrellas along a 29-kilometer stretch of Interstate Highway 5 at the Tejon Ranch, 100 kilometers north of Los Angeles. They simultaneously unfurled 1,340 blue umbrellas in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. Each umbrella was 6 meters high and 9 meters across, the size of a small house. An estimated 3 million visitors explored and interacted with the California umbrellas during the 18 days the work was open to the public.

The Umbrellas required seven years of planning, a process that included obtaining permits from federal, state, and local governments, along with 23 private land owners. As with all their projects, Christo and Jeanne-Claude funded the $26 million it cost themselves, through sales of preliminary studies, drawings, lithographs, models, and other artwork.

Christo’s projects often incite controversy, particularly among professional art critics who question whether such constructions really are “art.” Nonetheless, the bright yellow umbrellas harmonized with the autumn-brown mountains and scrub vegetation, and complemented a brilliant blue sky.

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These pictures show the clear and dry weather that’s normal for Southern California in October. But a week after I visited, a freak storm arrived with winds powerful enough to blow down firmly-anchored 221-kilogram umbrellas. One umbrella killed a woman and injured several other visitors when a sudden wind gust uprooted and pushed it across a road. Christo and Jeanne-Claude immediately shut down the project, which had been scheduled to last three weeks. Then a crane operator removing umbrellas in Japan was electrocuted after accidentally touching a high-voltage power line, bringing the project’s death toll to two. Ars longa, vita brevis.

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