DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News, I'm Debbie Elliott.
After draping New York Central Park last winter, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude have moved West. They're refocusing their attentions on an installation in rural Colorado they've been planning since 1992.
Over the River will bear all of the artists' signature marks, grand in scale, an industrial feat of engineering and precision planning, and, yes, plenty of ethereal fabric. Adam Burke has the story.
ADAM BURKE reporting:
As it cuts eastward through central Colorado's Rocky Mountains, the Arkansas River flows past the small city of Salida and some 40 miles downstream through Canyon City. In-between the river meanders alongside pasture lands and tiny towns, and it plunges through narrow, granite-throated canyons. It's one of the most rafted rivers in the U.S.
(Soundbite of Arkansas River)
Over the River would temporarily transform this bucolic landscape into a surreal and some would say inviting wonderland of snaking, wind-rippled fabric. In eight different areas, and for a total of seven miles, Christo and Jeanne-Claude want to suspend shimmering nylon panels above the river, using anchors and steel cables. It's a material that Jeanne-Claude says will create spectacular visuals.
Ms. JEANNE-CLAUDE DENAT DE GUILLEBON (Artist): When seen from the road, you will see only waves of silvery fabric moving in the wind, but when you are down there on the raft or on foot at the level of the water, then through the fabric you can see the clouds and the contours of the mountains. Two different visions.
BURKE: And Christo says the marks of humanity visible along the river, the towns and tractors and the two-lane highway, add a sense of scale that's also aesthetically important.
Mr. CHRISTO VLADIMIROV JAVACHEFF (Artist): The work of art is all togetherness, together everything, including rich highway, railroad tracks, people, rocks, tree, sky, all together is the work of art.
BURKE: Christo can rely on the rocks and sky to behave agreeably. But stirring people into the mix, that's a bit more tricky, and at a recent series of meetings sponsored by the federal Bureau of Land Management or BLM, it became clear that the very rural qualities that attracted Christo and Jeanne-Claude are sticking points for many of the locals who live along the Arkansas.
Ms. KATHY YOUNG(ph) (Founder, Rags Over the Arkansas River): We feel like he's disgracing the canyon. It's an insult to the canyon to put fabric over it.
BURKE: Kathy Young is a founder of the newly formed group Rags Over the Arkansas River, or ROAR. They don't like Christo attracting some 250,000 visitors to their valley.
Ms. YOUNG: And it's like he doesn't really care about the local population, and that really concerns us.
BURKE: Young says her group is petitioning state and federal agencies to deny the project, and they've gathered some 750 signatures so far, including that of Dan Ainsworth(ph).
Mr. DAN AINSWORTH (Petitioner): I will fight it to the death.
BURKE: For Ainsworth and many opponents, the two-lane ribbon of highway with its infrequent pullouts will become a bottleneck of traffic jams, accidents and general mayhem.
Mr. AINSWORTH: Number one, I don't consider it art in any shape, form or fashion. Number two, I think the impact is going to be tremendous, both with our emergency services, our law enforcement services. The traffic impact is going to be phenomenal.
BURKE: Opponents say the project will also overstress wildlife, including the many bighorn sheep that use the Arkansas River as a primary water source. But underlying these concerns is a feeling that the artwork is incompatible with rural life and rural values.
Mr. AINSWORTH: This is bringing New York City to Fremont County, and most of us don't want it.
BURKE: There were plenty of boosters at the meetings also, those who say it will benefit local businesses and fill county coffers with sales tax revenue. Some say it's only temporary, just a two-week project, and there are those, like Canon City resident Kara Fisher(ph), who gush about the art itself.
Ms. KARA FISHER (Canon City Resident): I'm very much for the project. I'm not afraid for the sheep or the river or anything. I can hardly wait to walk under it, maybe even raft under it, and I think that they are in the deepest and highest sense artists and that we should support them in every way.
BURKE: In the coming months, the BLM will decide whether concerns about traffic and wildlife and public safety can be adequately addressed. To proceed, the project needs permits from the BLM as well as from state and local agencies, and the earliest dates for an exhibition will be some time in August of 2009.
But as the artists are fond of saying, social debate, the clash of ideas and values that surrounds most of their projects, is an essential part of the artwork itself, and in that sense, Over the River is well underway, long before any physical materials have been manufactured or assembled, something Christo calls the hardware period.
Mr. CHRISTO: Right now we're in the software period. When the work of art build the personality, the energy and dynamics.
BURKE: According to some art critics, it's Christo and Jeanne-Claude's ability to synthesize social and material dynamics that has made them two of the most important public artists working today.
Ms. KATY SIEGEL (Associate Professor of Art History, Hunter College): Part of the irony of public art is, of course, that most of it's really hideous and doesn't look like anything and people just ignore it.
BURKE: Katy Siegel is a public art scholar and associate professor of Art History at Hunter College in New York. She says Christo and Jeanne-Claude's work is important because it engages millions of people who don't visit galleries or museums and because it provokes discussions and arguments about the nature of art.
Ms. SIEGEL: It's good to be talking about these things. What is public? What's in the public interest? How do we use public space? And for public art to actually reach such a large percentage of the public is really unusual and does, in my eyes, make it successful.
BURKE: Still, Siegel allows that if Over the River is a significant disruption to people's lives, and alienates rather than involves locals, maybe it's less successful as public art. Indeed, some locals are quite cynical about whether Christo and Jeanne-Claude truly value their input.
Unidentified Man #2: Whether we like it or not, it's going to happen.
BURKE: Every morning, Bob Blatchley(ph), Ben Shanefeld(ph) and Tom Dunne(ph) drink coffee together in the small town of Coldale. They didn't bother to attend the public hearings.
Unidentified Man #3: It's a done deal as far as I'm concerned.
Unidentified Man #2: What they're doing is pacifying you.
Unidentified Man #3: We're just gonna have to live with it.
Unidentified Man #4: They know they've got a general public here in this immediate area that's against this project, and I personally wonder myself if they'll get some kind of satisfaction out of that.
BURKE: If history is any indication, Over the River is anything but a done deal. Since they began collaborating in the early 1960s, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have failed to produce some 37 projects. In most cases, they say it was local opposition that caused their permit requests to be denied. And of the 19 projects that have been realized, many took decades to complete. But whether Over the River is realized or no, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have already achieved something they're proud of. They've sparked public discussions in rural Colorado that range well beyond the ordinary.
Unidentified Man #1: There are hundreds of people who love the project, hundreds of people dislike the project. Passion, interpretation, forces, this is something nobody can invent. No advertising agency, nobody can invent it. All that energy is the power of the project. And, of course, it's very gratifying that we can steer so much energy.
BURKE: Citizens will have another opportunity for input on Over the River when the BLM releases its environmental assessment sometime this summer. For NPR News, I'm Adam Burke.