Umbrellas In The Mist

It's Christo time again. Every few years the world's best-known site-specific artist rolls out a few thousand bolts of bright, plasticky fabric and concocts a giant eye-catcher in some outdoor place you'd hardly expect to find art. In l971, he threw a big orange curtain across a valley in Rifle Gap, Colo. Five years later, it was the 24-mile "Running Fence" near Petaluma, Calif., and in 1983 he cast bright pink aureolae around some islands in Florida's Biscayne Bay. Every Christo project rolls along with tales of the Bulgarian-Parisian-New York artist, now 56, winning over skeptical Jaycee types with his regular-guyness. Each time it nears completion, heartwarming stories start rolling in about dedicated students working for minimum wage and maximum enlightenment. And erstwhile philistines start coming around to the idea that, Hey, this just might be art after all.

Christo's latest production, the $26 million "The Umbrellas: Joint Project for Japan and U.S.A.," has split like a giant reproducing art cell into two simultaneous spectacles. Last Wednesday morning, in a 12-mile stretch of the mostly rural Sato River valley in northern Ibaraki Prefecture, 1,340 giant (20 feet high, 28 feet wide) blue umbrellas installed in streams, rice fields and villages unfurled in the wake of a typhoon. Then Christo caught a plane and, also last Wednesday morning (a little time-zone trick here), oversaw a similar event (1,760 equally big yellow umbrellas) in the Tejon Pass, 60 miles north of Los Angeles. Barring another typhoon or a California brush fire, the international umbrellas will stay up until Oct. 31 when, in accordance with Christo's fondness for both impermanence and the environment, they'll be taken down and recycled. (Although Christo finances his own projects with sales of related paintings and drawings, he has refused to market individual umbrellas on the ground that out of context they're not art, just memorabilia.)

For those who can't get to Japan or drive up I-5 to experience the work itself, the biggest impression "Umbrellas" will make is statistical. The project took seven years to realize and consumed 50 acres of fabric, 18 miles of cable and 3,100 winches. Each umbrella weighs 488 pounds. In California, 87 crews of 10 people patrolled 87 separate areas to get the umbrellas opened. And then there are those 26 million bucks.

A generation ago, when every sculptor and his brother weren't peddling plans for huge public projects, Christo's work and its supporters were the progressive pat of butter in a sea of scoffers' grits. Now, with what's sometimes called "the new public art" all over the place and Christo's pieces merely bigger and more ephemeral, it's the naysayers who seem prescient. Isn't a million dollars a day a little extravagant for three weeks of the art world's version of an Evel Knievel stunt, even if it does come out of Christo's pocket? Aren't a thousand-plus aluminum-embedded-in-concrete umbrellas that have to be closed in high winds a little overbearing in a country where an ancient craft of lacquered paper umbrellas is dying out? (Stephan Koehler, a German artist living in Japan, launched 1,001 paper umbrellas upside down in a Tokyo lake to make that point. Cost: $6,000.)

Although flamboyant art may be a necessary antidote to the dour and recessionary '90s, "Umbrellas" is sculptural fluff. Big money and huge scale aside, it's how the Sistine Chapel might have turned out had Michelangelo been thinking less about the Last Judgment and more about "Have a nice day."