Land Matters: Should a River Run Under It?

Environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude want to cover up a white-water river in the Rocky Mountains with 5.9 miles of silvered cloth. Should the people of Colorado let them do it?

That’s right: The environmental art duo who brought us Running Fence in California and The Gates in New York City now have their eyes on Bighorn Sheep Canyon, a stretch of the Arkansas River known for its wildlife, fishing, and white-water rafting. You can view their concept drawings at The project will cover the Arkansas River with 5.9 miles’ worth of “fibrillated polypropylene fabric coated with vaporized aluminum on both sides.” These translucent canopies will hover eight to 25 feet above the water and reach almost bank to bank.

Some Coloradans who live near the canyon are up in arms about the project and have formed a group called ROAR (Rags Over the Arkansas River). They charge that the influx of hundreds of thousands of tourists will create a traffic nightmare on the two-lane canyon road; that the drilling required to fasten the panels will permanently deface the riverbanks; that bighorn sheep, elk, deer, and other wildlife will be kept from their drinking water; and that eagles and sports fishermen won’t be able to fish the river. And, although the panels will only be in place for two weeks, Christo admits that installation and removal will disrupt the area for two to three years.

Although I’m a fan of good environmental art, I’m going to side with ROAR on this one. Some of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work—most recently, The Gates in Central Park—has been widely praised. Many landscape architects who visited it said that The Gates framed Frederick Law Olmsted’s master work in a way that let them see it with new eyes. Over the River seems to be doing quite the opposite—it actually covers up the river. Does anyone, even Christo, think that 5.9 miles of silvered fabric is anywhere near as beautiful as a free-flowing mountain river?

Then there’s the question of what to do with all those miles of fibrillated polypropylene fabric after the project closes. We’re told it will be recycled, but what does “recycling” mean for these extravaganzas? After The Gates was dismantled, the orange vinyl from which the 7,503 gates were made was refashioned into tiny orange rulers. I happen to be the recipient of one. I have no idea how I’d ever use it. Is that meaningful recycling?

Conceived in the early 1990s or before, Over the River is a conceptual and environmental dinosaur, a relic from the days when some land artists and designers aspired to create iconic art without regard to its environmental cost. As the Washington Post said of Over the River: “There’s a sense that this kind of 1970s-era ‘environmental art’ has more links to heavy industry—to old-fashioned well drilling and dam building—than to some more recent art that’s been made with genuine ecological feeling.”

As other, better artists strive to create a greener future, what should environmental art look like?

J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA
Editor, Landscape Architecture Magazine

16 thoughts on “Land Matters: Should a River Run Under It?

  1. Adam E. Anderson 03/12/2009 / 3:52 pm

    Why’ll I tend to immediately enjoy the vastness of Christo’s work, through his use of artificial mediums he would seem to have a less of innate connection and understanding, or yearning for understanding of the land as compared to other artists such as Andy Goldsworthy and Robert Smithson.

  2. Errin 03/13/2009 / 5:33 pm

    Unfortunately, this type of ill-considered project gives a bad name to public art and other ventures. Given current economic conditions and environmental awareness, this seems an especially bad idea. We need to be building the public’s perceptions of art as a beneficial contribution to the world – to society and the environment – and projects like this are what opponents of arts funding hold up as examples of excess and waste. The project would perhaps make a more evocative statement in a suburban development full of half-built homes on what was once a meadow with a stream, or in a decomposing industrial area. At the very least it would be less damaging to the ecosystem. Art for art’s sake, regardless of environmental/resource cost, is in truth just a monument to ego.

  3. Anna Brawley 03/15/2009 / 8:42 pm

    Two thoughts on this project:
    1) If they could be persuaded to cancel, one could achieve the same (artificial) visual effect with some artful Photoshop work and a write-up on the controversy, the exhibit that never was.
    2) If it does indeed need to go forward, could only a small piece actually be installed? I suppose that just isn’t their style …

  4. Daniel Jost 03/17/2009 / 5:10 pm

    Hi Adam,

    I have to disagree that Robert Smithson’s work was any more in touch with the earth and its natural processes. Some of his work could have actually qualified him to be a villain on Captain Planet, the environmentalist kids program from the early nineties.

    Consider Smithson’s plans to cover a small island just outside of Vancouver with broken glass in 1969. These plans were suspended at the last minute due to a similar environmental outcry- the island was frequented by birds and seals. And he actually followed through with his plans to pour asphalt down the side of a small mountain. Sure asphalt is poured in the name of development all the time, but that destruction is actually useful in some way, Smithson’s pourings were completely ego.

  5. Adam E. Anderson 03/18/2009 / 1:31 pm


    Your actually right. I was thinking of spiral jetty specifically when I mentioned his name, and shouldn’t have included him with Andy Goldsworthy and in contrast with Christo. A friend correcting me as well.

    Thanks for pointing it out.

  6. Clay 03/20/2009 / 11:11 am

    I just don’t see how any good can come from a project like this. It seems to me that the environmental impact of this install would be far more disastrous then the gain of “public art”.

    1, limited access by viewers, narrow roads, located in the middle of nowhere.

    2, the river I’m sure is used by thousands of animals that if not permanently scared off during the construction will be forced to find a food source else where. Birds of prey that soar above the river looking down for food will only see a reflective cover. Ever see a bird fly into a window?

    I agree with Errin, it would be much more impact full in a housing development of an abandoned industrial park.

    Just my random thoughts

  7. jennie 03/24/2009 / 9:04 am

    What a complete waste of time, money and effort. What’s the point of this 5.9 miles of silver fabric? Get real. spend the money on preserving wild lands or feeding starving kids or creating jobs or fighting disease. The project should not be allowed. The orange fabric in central park was ok because it was an urban situation with little impact, and provided human interaction. This fabric over a wild river is quite a bit different environmentally, i.e. wildlife habitat disturbances, sunlight access issues, human impact issues, etc. Do something more positive besides feeding artistic egos. Stopping it is a no-brainer.

  8. D.W. Sabin 03/24/2009 / 9:35 am

    Dismissing Smithson’s work out of hand is a bit presumptuous. If you have never trekked out to the West side of the Promontory Mountains on the Great Salt Lake and pondered Spiral Jetty, you have missed one of the more incredible existential conversations between scale, form, nature and man in the world. Watching the salt-sud miniature clouds scud across the white crust with the waves in the distance and the stark ranges ripping the horizon…well, this piece of art actually enhances an already spectacular scene. Smithson’s pieces at the Dia Beacon are also very interesting. I’ve seen and really enjoyed several Goldsworthy projects and in particular admire his little bits of ephemeral interaction with nature but it is a waste of time saying one is better than the other. It’s like saying Braque aint any good because Picasso’s better. There is no art without ego.

    As to the Christo’s wrappings, I have a suggestion. Let them wrap the Federal District and its many smiling Bolsheviks in a giant parcel and ship it to China, no return address. Make sure to include the Pentagon and just to be sure we mean no harm, throw in that large Oz looming there on the Beltway.

  9. Martin Barry 03/24/2009 / 9:55 am

    without reading all of the commentary, i think the asphalt pours you’re talking about are robert smithson’s. bizarre or beautiful? this gets me back to bill thompson’s question about who could think that 5.9 miles of fabric is more beautiful than a free-flowing river. i happen to find smithson’s work very influential and the relative beauty will be judged differently by all of us.

    there was public outrage and outright dismissal of “the gates” for almost 30 years for many of the same reasons being mentioned to stop “Over the River.” By dismissing this as just another stunt would be to stop thousands, perhaps millions of people from experiencing some public art, whether there is a subjectively defined beauty inherent, or not.

    for me, Christo and Jean-Claude’s work allows more cutting edge landscape projects to be accepted by the mainline public. for landscape architects, this is critical so that our work can continue to evolve and visionary work be more accepted.

    furthermore, if you truly want to be a steward of public art and the environment, find a middle ground amongst the disparate groups; work with the artists to find a better strategy to enrich the ecology; perhaps use a different fabric with less coverage to allow for fishing and feeding. there are any number ways to be proactive without joining a group that sets out to deface a project with the mere choosing of it’s name and acronym.

  10. Zakery D Steele 03/24/2009 / 11:16 am

    that’s sad. i understand where they’re coming from (ROAR) with respect to the environment… but perhaps they don’t understand the real benefits of highlighting that experience through art. hell, have Christo put in a million dollar retainer, to cover the cost of any required remediation work, contribute 100 grand to an endowment for future area environmental work or better yet, for legal defense against oil and gas drilling (the real environmental villain in that part of the States). and then charge $100,000 per group to make river runs in 10-man rafts through the project. — if people are willing to spend 75grand each to get to the top of Everest… they’re certainly willing to spend 10g’s each to make a river run through 5 miles of the weirdest visual experience they’ve ever seen in their lives.

    part of their apprehension is probably due to ROAR thinking that Christo sees the geography and ecology as a desolate and uninhabited wasteland… a place where he would ‘likely be allowed’ to do the art… as opposed his specific choice of that geography because it’s so beautiful. If you’re from that part of the country, and you very little experience outside of the area… you have this innate defense about the landscape… because you think nobody else understands its beauty. no matter how intelligent you are… you think the rest of the country just wants to take away your uranium, shale, and natural gas reserves, and give you back spent nuclear waste … … …so misunderstood. christo is not the enemy.

    i’m from that part of the country. i have that innate defense about my home landscape… the ecology is much more delicate than it appears to be. but this project is a positive.

    i’m fired up. christo should move it over to the Colorado River or Green River near Moab. they’d be more receptive.

  11. Jurgen Hess 03/24/2009 / 1:52 pm

    My concerns with the Christo proposal:

    1) The wrap material is basically made from oil, it’s production is not benign. Aren’t there better uses for oil, even for humans, like medical technology?
    2) There will be on-site environmental impacts:creating holes in beautiful rocks for the anchors, birds in the riparian zone will be affected, noise from the installation will impact wildlife, what birds will fly under this strange (to them) and weird thing to catch insects as they have done for thousands of years? Adapt? Can they adapt to this thing? But why should they have to? What about nature’s rights?
    3) Who benefits other than a segment of the public who likes this type of public art? Does the water, vegetation, invertebrates, fish, birds and wildlife benefit? And mitigation through viewer receipts doesn’t make the impact go away.

    The Arkansas River is already impacted way too much by humans–it’s so overused with rafting, buildings in the riparian zone, agriculture, etc. A much better project would be one that restores the Arkansas River corridor. This could mean reducing the impact of humans: decreasing rafters and other recreationists, runoff and other impacts. Reduce the visual impacts. The river really needs a restored riparian zone. If Cristo would do that, I’d be out there helping him.

    Finally, there is nothing, nothing more beautiful than a free flowing river. Other than environmental restoration, it can not be made more beautiful…..and that’s a wrap!

  12. martinbarry 03/25/2009 / 8:56 am

    One more point regarding those who propose projects to restore the Arkansas River: Do it. I wouldn’t rely on Christo and Jeanne-Claude to do this, that’s not their mission or proposal.

    “Christo and Jeanne-Claude pay the entire cost of the artworks themselves.” The sale of their preparatory studies and drawings of past installations provide the means necessary to install more art, without public funding, or grants for that matter.

    If [ROAR] and other groups want to raise or contribute enough money for the proposals being floated above, I’m sure the public would be willing to accept [and, a few groups might even fight] that as well.

  13. Dwight Nysewander 03/30/2009 / 10:16 am

    As an artist, landscape designer and a lover of all things natural, the only value in this project I see is the need for more discussions on this marriage between art and nature and how it should interact appropriately. My sense is that Christo Jeanne-Claude need to look beyond this idea they have for the river, and find a way to implement their creativity into creative sustainability and not these massive projects that end up costing them millions to implement. If they are such great artists could they not reinvent themselves into something more beautiful and meaningful?

  14. Deb Greer 04/08/2009 / 4:58 pm

    Keep this in VR. Why would anything that tears a beautiful natural habitat to pieces for years or or decades be “beneficial”? spend the money on food for children, PLEASE. Now THAT would be BENEFICIAL. The Bighorn Canyon is a magical place, full of wild things and wind.. Let it BE.

  15. Jordan 05/07/2009 / 7:12 pm

    Can anyone enlighten me on their perceived difference between a major engineering project, landscape architectural intervention, and the “Over the River” project? I am an MLA writing a paper on this project and am struggling to make light of the issues raised by this project, especially my own ideas of what a landscape architect’s role is (is it to provoke and create art, or to maintain/restore habitat, or both? If it is both, what are the limits?).

    From my point of view after watching documentaries and reading books by Christo and my understanding of Land and Environmental Art, the idea of a project like this is to make light of the issues of industry and landscape intervention and bring people together in a public process (much like a large-scale landscape architecture or planning project would) to engage them in a discussion about art, enivronment, landscape, etc.

    Could this be a beneficial project in that light, to highlight issues with a giant shiny object that says , “look at this river”? Or is any “unnecessary” (which needs defining as well) land use or consumption wrong? How do we decide that art and provocation is less necessary than a dam, economic opportunity for the people in the region, or the possibility of disturbance to a pristine natural habitat? The previous comments and my discussions with my colleagues have helped me hash out some of these ideas but I would love to hear more.

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