Learn Something New Every Day!

Living in Bakersfield, California, and having family in the Los Angeles area meant I drove south on Interstate 5 often.  That route runs through farmland and then heads over the Grapevine near the Tejon Pass.  It’s basically a 2-hour drive that I always enjoy:  catching an occasional sunset, spotting the wildflowers in the spring or the random dusting of snow throughout winter, slowing through the fog that can get so dense it closes the freeway, or watching hawks soar high above fields or the red-winged blackbirds darting among the foliage. This is a route I know well. Heck, in spring and summer of 1991, I earned three speeding tickets heading to LA more often than usual to help plan my parents’ 50th Anniversary Party.

By the end of summer 1991, I had relocated to Chatsworth, CA, meaning I would not need to drive the Grapevine route so regularly.  I would not mind saving the time the trip required, but I would miss the vistas and the colors.  Therefore, I was intrigued when that fall I read about Christo’s upcoming outdoor, temporary art project that would stretch along that very route.

I had heard of Christo before and his large artistic undertakings like wrapping buildings and surrounding islands with cloth, but I had not paid much attention.  Christo’s website provides an index and supplemental photos of all of his and his wife’s work. Before The Umbrellas, some of his art included The Pont Neuf Wrapped in Paris (September 1985); Surrounded Island, Biscayne Bay, FL (May 1983); and Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin Counties, CA (September 1976).  The Gates was erected in New York’s Central Park in February 2005.

But 20 years ago, in October 1991, the art was being planned for my back yard, so to speak.  I was enthralled.  In addition, I appreciated his perspective on art. For Christo, art was fleeting, temporary—but also massive.  After the art was displayed for a set period of time, it was dismantled, no longer available for first-hand viewing. What was left were his preparation notes and sketches and the photos, books, and murals that document the exhibit. The actual artwork was dissolved, much like the sand mandalas created and destroyed by Tibetan Buddhist monks in a symbolic gesture to the transitory nature of the material world.

Christo placed his art in the real world, taking over familiar spaces in order to confront anyone traveling through or visiting the area. As a spectator—or at times as a participant—you could seek out the experience or stumble upon it as you went about your day-to-day tasks. That unexpected—perhaps confrontational—aspect of his art forced a new perspective from the viewers, helped the viewers see their world anew. Kathleen Lang reports that Christo called his art “gentle disturbances” that insist the viewers see their environment differently. Just imagine:  People who would never plan a visit to a local museum could not miss the massive displays  littering a familiar landscape—highway or island, hills or bridge—and could not help but notice and wonder about the intruding  artwork even if they had never heard of Christo. Impressive.

Christo: The Umbrellas Japan and U.S.A

Christo’s Umbrellas was a massive undertaking that took five years of preparation, including nearly three years of collaboration with public and private agencies, to come into existence. According to the souvenir map provided for
those who sought out the exhibit, the umbrellas were indeed massive:  Each of the 3,100 octagonal umbrellas was 6 meters (19 feet 8 inches) high and 8.66 meters (28 feet 6 inches) across. They were engineered to withstand 104 kilometers per hour (65 mph) winds when open, and 177 kilometers per hour (110 mph) winds when closed.  Costing $26 million to construct, this temporary work of art would be on display for only three weeks, opening on 8 October 1991.  Today is the 20th Anniversary of the opening of this exhibit.

A more unique aspect of Christo’s Umbrellas was that it was a two-part series, being displayed simultaneously in Ibaraki, Japan, and California, U.S.A.  The promotional materials explained that the locations were selected as a way to reflect “the similarities and differences in the ways of life of the two inland valleys.” Japan’s 1,340 umbrellas were blue complementing the display’s watery route that followed the Sato River and crossed extensive rice paddies.

California’s 1,760 umbrellas were yellow and wandered across the farmlands of the central valley that needs ongoing irrigation to be fruitful; the yellow color mimicked the color of local flora found along the fields and roads. At each location, the umbrellas were “placed sometimes in clusters covering entire fields, or deployed in a line, or randomly spaced from each other, running alongside roads, villages, and river banks.”

The preliminary sketches of the exhibit, provided as postcards, demonstrated the symmetry and balance evident in the two halves of this exhibit. The exhibit’s official photographer was Wolfgang Volz—and here is one of his murals documenting the artwork once constructed:

The differences in terms of locations and route help emphasize the extensive scope of this project. The main details are noted in the following chart:

 

Characteristics
of Christo’s The Umbrellas Project

Opened 8 October 1991 for 3-Week Run

$26 Million Production Costs

 

Ibaraki, JAPAN

CALIFORNIA,
U.S.A

19 Kilometers (12 Miles) Long

29 Kilometers (18 Miles) Long

1,340 BLUE Umbrellas

1,760 YELLOW Umbrellas

120 Kilometers (75 Miles)

North of Tokyo

96 Kilometers (60 Miles)

North of Los Angeles

Around Route 349

Along Interstate 5

Farm Lands: Rice Paddies

Farm Lands: Grapes, Cotton

One Accidental Death:

Man, 51 years old

Power Line Accident When Dismantling
Display Early

One Accidental Death:

Woman, 33 years old

Unexpected Wind Toppled Umbrella
Causing Early Closure of Display

Tragedy Strikes Christo’s Umbrellas

As the above chart notes, Christo’s Umbrellas were struck by tragedy when the season’s first downpour accompanied by heavy winds uprooted several umbrellas at the California site.  The LA Times reported that one of the 488-pound umbrellas was uprooted and thrown by the high winds, trapping a young woman between the umbrella and a boulder killing her instantly. This tragedy struck on October 26th, just three days before the exhibit was set to close. Christo was in Japan viewing the exhibit there when he heard the news and immediately called for the display to be dismantled in both locations, out of respect for the deceased, Lori Keevil-Mathews.

The article also reported that the umbrellas had been constructed to withstand winds up to 65 mph when open and 110 when closed; as a planned precaution, the umbrellas were to be closed if the winds exceeded 35 mph. But that process involved using a hand crank to close each umbrella and took extensive time. During the storm’s wind bursts, over 100 umbrellas were damaged, including the one involved in the fatality.

The New York Times explained that the tragedy continued into the Japanese location.  When the umbrellas were dismantled in Ibaraki, a worker died when the crane he was working with came in contact with a 65,000 volt power line. This casualty of the art exhibit was named Masaaki Nakamura. When asked to comment on the tragedies now associated with The Umbrellas, Christo noted that the deaths emphasized that his art is a part of the reality of life: “There is no make-believe, no theatre, no spectacle. And for me, the real world involves everything: risk, danger, beauty, energy, all we meet with in the real world. This project demonstrated that everything is possible, because it is part of reality.”

My Trip to Christo’s Umbrellas

News of the woman’s death while she was viewing The Umbrellas was difficult to fathom. I had been out there myself, marveling at the display just weeks before. As I approached the area, the umbrellas were visible on the hills, standing sentry. Along the 18-mile route, there were places where visitors could view the umbrellas up  close.  Standing under one, I appreciated how all my senses were engaged as the canvas filtered the bright sun and the wind whipped through the area, causing incredible sounds. There were no guards saying, “Don’t touch!” That the umbrellas were literally part of the landscape meant that each day, each hour, the exhibit was a little different, making each viewing truly unique. For me, despite the tragedy, viewing the exhibit will always remain a remarkable experience. The whole experience reminds me that Art truly is beautiful and engaging, intrusive and confrontational, provocative and enticing, overwhelming and even dangerous. Isn’t that what art should be?

Now, living again in Bakersfield, I think of The Umbrellas often as I drive that familiar route several times each month.  To help you experience the exhibit as if you were there, here is a video that shows photos that place you along Interstate 5 seeing how easy it was to interact with the umbrellas. Enjoy.

[NOTE:  Once I discovered the video used in the original post was no longer available, I added a different video to keep the post complete. I also wrote a new post showing videos of the blue umbrellas along the Japanese route that comprised half of the Christo’s Umbrella display. PAR November 2013.]

Comments on: "Christo’s Umbrellas: A Look Back" (20)

  1. Should you ever be interested in meeting up for coffee/tea/lunch or similar on your sojourns to L.A., let me know! I’d definitely be game.

    It’s funny to read this post right after the one I just commented on, which was about music that moves us. I wrote my comment about the Scrubs soundtrack, which was my “moving home” as I left Eugene and moved down to Los Angeles. Reading about the Grapevine and seeing these pictures reminds me of how much making this drive myself feels like I am coming home, even though this was not the home of my birth.

    • I woud love to figure out a way to meet for lunch or something–we’ll have to keep in touch on that one. I know what you mean about the drive down the middle of the state–it does feel like coming home for me too. And I made the full drive many times when I visited my sister who lives in Ashland. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I had heard of this but not to the extent in which you describe it. I can only imagine what 1,760 yellow umbrellas looked like. Thank you for preparing and sharing this with us.

    • You are welcome. I really had fun, once I pulled out the old photos. I was not sure others who had not seen it would care, but heck, I mainly write the blog for me and then am thrilled when the bloggin community reads and comments. Thanks.

  3. Patti! I love this post!! The umbrellas are amazing, and I so appreciate the art but what I really love is Christos’s take on life. It is indeed risky, dangerous, and beautiful. Thank you for posting this–you made my day!

    • Thanks for stopping by. His view on art/life is overwhelming but marvelous. I have several good friends who are artists, and one of the my favorite things is to talk creativity and art and such with them. This post had that feel for me–exploring art!

  4. Oh dear Patti, I have never seen something like that before. I love umbrellas but this is an amazing art project. I am impressed so much, so beautiful and yes, have a risk too. But it is something like a butterflies of human world, with these umbrellas… I love these kind of art works in nature… I saw in UK too, some sculptures but this one is almost different… Thank you for sharing with us, how nice to learn new things in art… With my love, nia

  5. Count me in as one who not only didn’t know about this, but I’ve never seen anything like it. Thanks for sharing your perspective and including the video.

    • Thanks for stopping by. I am glad you liked the video. There was another that sounded so good–a helicopter view, but in reality it was an unedited terrible home video that was all shakey and silly–focusing on eveything but the art. The one I posted at least showed shots of the people and roads, which I managed to avoid in my photos–liking instead the illusion of being out there on my own!?

  6. Thanks for the great pictures and background. I would love to see these some day if I’m ever in the area.

    • Thanks for stopping by. You will have to watch for a new Christo project to see his work on display–I am not sure what he is working on now.

  7. Wow Patti, this is beautiful. Christo’s umbrellas is such a simplistic, yet such an artistic concept – I love it. Had never heard of it before. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I read about this art project but not with as much detail as you have provided. I would have loved to have photographed it in different lights! Art is anything you want it to be, I truly believe this.

  9. Now I know how lucky I was when I visited your blog in the first time. Because of this visit I am now reading about christo’s umbrellas.
    Thank you for sharing.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the Christo post. I was thinking of those umbrellas just yesterday as I drove the route they covered and all the gold bushes were in bloom. It amazes me that this post of mine is one that gets some perpetual views via search engines. Christo is intriguing to many.

  10. […] California half of Christo’s: The Umbrellas Joint Project for Japan and U.S.A. in October 1991.  I originally wrote about that experience in October 2011 on the 20th anniversary of the exhibit.  It seems so long ago!  However, no […]

  11. […] you past autumn colors.  The noted artist Christo even planned his Umbrellas Exhibit—in both California and Japan—along common roadways.  No matter where I go, if I pay attention, I can usually find […]

  12. […] would not last.  To learn more about the Christo’s Umbrellas, you can view my earlier posts:  Christo’s Umbrellas: A Look Back and Christo’s Umbrellas: The Japanese […]

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