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Posts tagged ‘Art’

Christo’s Umbrellas: A Look Back

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:


of Christo’s The Umbrellas Project

Opened 8 October 1991 for 3-Week Run

$26 Million Production Costs


Ibaraki, JAPAN


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.]

Hands Full of Art

Hands are impressive.  In part, of course, because they help set us apart as humans, opposable thumbs and all that.  But it is what we can do with our hands that is truly wondrous. 

For one thing, hands help us express ourselves.  Some of us cannot really even talk without using our hands.  But even gestures alone can convey so much: thumbs up (or down), applause or wiggly fingers, hello or goodbye waves, okay signs, finger to lips shushing, stop (in the name of love), peace or victory sign, come hither finger curl, slap on the back, the universal you-are-crazy finger circle, the finger point, even giving someone the finger!  Of course, there is also the complexity and beauty of American Sign Language.

Then there are the more interactive options.  Although not exclusive to the use of hands, with our hands we can knead dough, bake pies, hold babies, give hugs and back rubs, shift gears, load the dishwasher, change light bulbs, tickle someone, carry packages, hold open doors, pack suitcases, arrange flowers, pinch a cheek, throw (or catch) wedding bouquets, tie shoelaces, open a coke can or beer bottle, juggle, play cards, change channels with the remote.  Obviously the list could go on and on!  There is even a famous Seinfeld episode that speculates how long someone can go without using hands in a very personal specific way! 

What fascinates me even more are the more creative tasks we put our hands to:  sketch, paint, sculpt, tickle the ivories, bang the drums, conduct a symphony, strum a guitar, play a harp, twirl batons, finger paint, write, doodle, to name a few.  But the real reason behind this entry is to showcase a truly unique artistic use of hands as the canvas for a work of art.  I have seen these wonders before but ran across them again today when I searched the web and thought I would share the following videos. 

The artist is Guido Daniele.  This first video shows part of his creative process as well as many finished products.  I think you will applaude once you see his work!

This second video shows even more of his creations with background music:  Elton John’s “Look Ma, No Hands.”  The artist’s copyright is super-imposed over each image, but you see past that pretty well to find the art.  I guess another use of hands is to steal images with the click of a finger.  Also, don’t hesitate to use your fingers to click away the stupid commercials that are being attached more and more onto the videos!

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In the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.  Isaac Newton

Hold a true friend with both hands. Nigerian Proverb

 The fragrance always remains in the hand that gives the rose. Heda Bejar

You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist- Indira Gandhi

Remember, we all stumble, every one of us.  That’s why it’s a comfort to go hand-in-hand. Emily Kimbrough

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