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Surrounded Islands: An Epic Art Installation in Miami

The artistic duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude decided to surround eleven uninhabited islands situated in Biscayne Bay of Miami with six million square feet of pink woven polypropylene fabric for two weeks and completed the installation on 7th May 1983.

Among other things, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are known for their enormous wrapped sculptures such as the ‘Running Fence’ (1972–76), ‘Wrapped Reichstag’ (1971–95), and ‘The Floating Piers’ (2014–16).

During their long careers, the duo also made many artistic interventions in nature and preferred to call themselves environmental artists instead of land or conceptual artists. One of their most famous art projects done in nature is – ‘Surrounding Islands’ wherein they surrounded eleven manmade uninhabited islands with pink polypropylene fabric.

The installation was between the city of Miami, North Miami, the Village of Miami Shores, and Miami Beach, and eleven of the islands in the area of Bakers Haulover Cut, Broad Causeway, 79th Street Causeway, Julia Tuttle Causeway, and Venetian Causeway. They were surrounded by 6.5 million square feet of floating pink woven polypropylene fabric.

Pink fabric covered the surface of the water. It was sewn into seventy-nine patterns to follow the contours of the islands, extending out 200 feet from each island into the bay. According to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s website, “Surrounded Islands was a work of art underlining the various elements and ways in which the people of Miami live, between land and water.” The duo changed the actual face of the natural environment by creating a delicate symbiotic connection between art, city, and nature. And they did it without damaging nature in any way. Let’s take a look at how Christo and Jeanne-Claude pulled it off!

 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s reconnaissance mission in Miami

The duo went to Miami in 1980 as they were invited by Jan van der Marck, the director of Miami’s Center for the Fine Arts, to create an art project in Florida. These two environmental artists looked around the city for the perfect spot and noticed the islands in the Biscayne Bay while driving on the causeways in their car.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude picked those eleven islands for their next artistic endeavor and started working on the Surrounded Islands in 1981.

In an exclusive interview with Art Basel, Christo recalled, “A friend drove us to discover Dade County and we discussed these dotted islands from North to South. We decided that this can be done.”

All of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s works show where the fluidity of the water meets the steadiness of the earth. You can see that in their project on the Wrapped Coast in Sydney Australia as well as the 1985 wrapping of the Pont Neuf bridge in France.

“I saw this flat land in Miami — only flat, flat, no mountains — and tropical vegetation and opaque water,” he said, speaking of why they chose Miami of all places. “Why not surround these islands with floating fabric?”

 

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When presenting it to the press, Christo called it their “pink project”, noting that they will finance the making of the piece themselves since the duo always funded their artworks and projects by themselves. Jeanne-Claude and Christo worked with banks and sold the latter’s drawings to collectors, museums, and galleries and never accepted commissions. They had the freedom to do as they pleased by funding the projects themselves.

“I don’t like to be involved in any commercial venture because I like to keep my credibility very high and very pure,” a much younger Christo could be seen in a clip in his interview with Art Basel. In the same clip, a reporter stated, “Christo says he won’t be making any money on all this because he will not sell any photo rights to the Surrounded Islands project. And he has no financial interest in Christo souvenirs.”

Their business system worked so well that even a Harvard Business School did a case study about it. Andy Warhol – one of the most influential artists in the later twentieth century, answered “Christo” when asked who was the best businessman in arts.

 

The Phases of the Working Process on Surrounding Islands

Christo and Jeanne-Claude divided their working process into two phases – 1) Software Period and 2) Hardware Period.

The software period was the first phase. During this period, the work existed only as an idea and the project developed its identity. According to Christo, the software period built the energy and expectation of the public. In this phase, the artist turned those ideas into drawings and sketches. They used to get all the permissions in this phase and the presentations were done in this period.

During the second phase of the working process, the art project was created, built, and displayed in the real world. Christo said, “Hardware Period is when the physical material moves to the space and we start to build the project.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude in his studio with preparatory works for Surrounded Islands, New York City, 1981. Photo: Bob Kiss © 1981 Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation

Cost and Logistics of the project

The working process of nearly all of the duo’s art projects was very long as the artists had to obtain all of the permits needed to make a piece of art in a public space.

Permits were obtained from the governmental agencies – The Governor of Florida and the Cabinet; the Dade County Commission; the Department of Environmental Regulation; the City of Miami Commission; the City of North Miami; the Village of Miami Shores; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; the Dade County Department of Environmental Resources Management for Surrounding Islands.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude also always worked closely with engineers and other experts while preparing to come up with a new piece. Similarly, they had to work with attorneys Joseph Z. Fleming, Joseph W. Landers, marine biologists Anitra Thorhaug, marine engineers John Michel, and mammal experts Daniel Odell when planning the ‘Surrounded Islands’.

Since April 1981, ornithologists Oscar Owre and Meri Cummings, engineers and four consulting engineers, and builder-contractor Ted Dougherty of A and H Builders, Inc. had been working on the preparation of the Surrounded Islands with the duo along with the experts mentioned earlier.

Surrounded Islands was logistically one of the most complicated projects the duo undertook partly because of the fragility of the bay habitat and because every element had to be manipulated from the water (from thirty-two boats, including the rubber rafts).

The project generated seven public hearings, ten permit applications, and USD 400,000 (INR 2,97,11,000) worth of environmental tests. It also included several court appearances by the Christo legal team during its thirty months of preparation. Once the project was realized, it cost USD 15,000 (INR 11,14,162.50) a day for maintenance, island monitoring, and security.

 

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How was the pink fabric installed?

The workers attached the outer edge of the floating pink fabric to a 30.5 centimeter (12 inches) diameter octagonal boom in sections. This boom was the same color as the fabric and was connected to the radial anchor lines. These were extended from the anchors at the island to the 610 specially made anchors which were spaced at 15.2 meters (50 foot) intervals, 76.2 meters (250 feet) beyond the perimeter of each island.

They were driven into the limestone at the bottom of the bay and earth anchors were driven into the land, near the foot of the trees to secure the inland edge of the fabric. This covered the surface of the beach, while floating rafts of fabric and booms, varying from 3.7 to 6.7 meters (12 to 22 feet) in width and 122 to 183 meters (400 to 600 feet) in length were towed through the bay to each island.

Although there were eleven islands, two islands were surrounded together as one configuration twice.

“At the end of the fabric, we had a 12 inch about 30 cm octagonal boom. It prevented the debris in the water from coming in,” Christo said. “And there was a very intricate system of designing the fabric so it moved with the tide of the ocean. Up and down,” said the artist.

 

Surrounding Islands: Working Process

“Before the fabric came, there were many things to be prepared,” Christo said.

The working process for this project was two-and-a-half years long and artists also had to get permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the same.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude ran tests to check if the work would endanger any living organism that came in touch with the pink fabric and also cleaned the islands of forty tons of garbage. It consisted of old car tires, boats, refrigerator doors, and mattresses. These islands were mainly used for dumping garbage. One of the islands that were cleaned by the marine and land crew was even known as the “beer can island” because of the amount of garbage in it.

On 4th May 1983, 430 people started surrounding the islands with the 60-hectare pink polypropylene fabric that was sewn into seventy-nine patterns in a rented factory in Hialeah, Florida.  The crew included newly arrived Cuban and Haitian immigrants and local artists. They cut, stitched, sewed, and transported millions of yards of pink fabric across the bay.

A flotation strip was sewn into each seam and the fabric was done between November 1982 and April 1983. The sewn sections were accordion-folded to make the unfurling process on the water easier. Once this process was complete, the ‘Surrounded Islands’ artwork was tended day and night by 120 monitors in inflatable boats.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude working on the Surrounded Islands project, Florida, 1982 Photo: Wolfgang Volz

© 1983 Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation

Team Effort

Christo credits the crew for the project saying, “The project is not done by me and Jeanne-Claude, it was done by the incredible team of professional people.”

The workers on each island were organized by a designated captain who was in charge of them. A boat cruised around the islands non-stop during the two weeks that Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s artwork was presented in public. This was to ensure that no birds got trapped in the fabric and that nothing else had gone wrong. Furthermore, the duo refused to hire volunteers. Everybody always got paid for their work on the project.

“And the biggest part was to create that team. Each island had a captain. And that captain worked with about thirty or sometimes if the island was too big, 200 people,” he continued. They also found some newly arrived Haitian refugees that spoke French and appointed a captain for one of the islands who spoke to the workers in the language.

 

How did the visitors see the project?

Once the artwork was ready to be presented to the public, visitors were able to see the altered islands from boats, causeways, helicopters, and airplanes. However, most of the people saw the piece through their television sets.

The Surrounding Islands project was widely known. It was followed and talked about all around the globe and received extensive media coverage. Movie directors Albert and David Maysles filmed the whole process of making the Surrounded Islands. They made a documentary about it called ‘Islands’.

Miami saw a massive tourist boom during the weeks that the project surrounding the islands was open to the public. According to Artland Magazine, one helicopter company even sold as many as 5000 seats for USD 35 (INR 2592.97) for a ride to see the islands from up above.

 

Why Pink?

According to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s website, “The luminous pink color of the shiny fabric was in harmony with the tropical vegetation of the uninhabited verdant islands, the light of the Miami sky, and the colors of the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay.”

As you can see, the color pink is a major part of the artwork as it is the color of Miami and was supposed to represent the Latin culture of Florida. It also functioned as the most artificial color of all next to the nature of the Biscayne Bay pink.

The color was a clear sign of something that was man-made and its artificiality was further enforced by the precise faceting of each island’s outline. It was held in place by hexagonal booms and thousands of underwater anchors.

As per Artland Magazine, according to the Orlando Sentinel from April 17, 1983: “Pink used to mean flamingos, sunsets and art deco hotels. Now it means Christo.”

While speaking to Vulture in 2018, Christo said “You see, at first it was a very shy pink,” talking about how they had to experiment with how different shades of pink fabric would read from miles away. “But to come here there is very thick air; this is why we needed to have this very saturated bright pink so that it would translate from a distance as a light pink.”

“It’s about the specific light of the place. I adore the wetness, the air; it’s full of water,” the artist added.

Christo, Islands (Project for Miami, Florida), Drawing 1980

Photo: Eeva-Inkeri © 1980 Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation

 

Pink

Pink is a special color as it rarely occurs in nature, and when it does, it is considered magical. In Florida, the color is also present in the state’s natural world, mainly in pink flamingos. Pink is also a color that often occurs in  American Pop Culture such as in Elvis’ Cadillac, Marilyn Monroe’s dress in the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in 21st-century movies such ‘Mean Girls’ or ‘Legally Blonde’ as a sign of affluence or popular girls.

The color is often seen as feminine, associated with something luxurious, frivolous, and artificial. However, it also plays a big part in Latin visual culture. The shade of pink similar to the one used by Christo and Jeanne-Claude is called Mexican Pink.

As per The Collector, it is present in the artworks created by Rufino Tamayo and Frida Kahlo. Mexican Pink is also a part of the designs of Ramon Valdiosera. The color also plays a big part in buildings designed by Mexican architects Luis Barragan and Ricardo Legorreta.

 

The Pink in Surrounded Islands

In 1964 Christo created one of his Store Fronts in a lighter shade of pink, which was the duo’s first work colored in pink not ‘Surrounding Islands’. The artificial color represents the human hand next to the natural setting playing a big part in the whole visual identity of the work. Explaining the Surrounding Islands’ visual effect at the time, Christo tried to convey that it would be painterly, “like marvelous water lilies; it’s my Monet.”

Pink was not only seen in the actual artwork but also behind the scenes as workers can be seen wearing pink shirts as uniforms in the Maysles brothers’ documentary on the project. Upon finishing the work on the piece, Christo sent 1 dollar (INR 74.22) pink checks as thank-you notes to everyone who was involved in its making.

The look of the Surrounded Islands also changed depending on the time of the day and the weather during the two weeks it existed in public. The reflections of the pink fabric on the water changed, giving a new experience for the viewers each time they looked at it.

Two people had a different response but a similar interpretation of the color of the work. Someone said it reminded them of spills of Pepto Bismol syrup, a pink-colored medicine, and another that it looked beautiful.

 

The Controversy surrounding the project

The ephemeral project Surrounding Islands cost USD 3.5 million (INR 25,97,30,625). Although it was an epic artwork that was the subject of endless newspapers and television, it still raised some eyebrows because of the cost. It also had some controversy as environmental opponents hovered about, rallying with sometimes flamboyant protectiveness in the interest of the bay’s wildlife.

According to ART News, the most visible among them was Jack Kassewitz, Jr., the head of an organization called the National Wildlife Rescue Team, who styled himself “the Count of Anti-Christo”. At one point, he tied a string of pink garbage bags in a bow around one of the Miami courthouses. Kassewitz did this to protest potential harm to the habitat of ospreys, eagles, seagrasses, and manatees.

“It was the first time we were in court, the Federal Court of the United States, to get the permission,” Christo said. “The process was very controversial, very complex, and very very difficult.”

Installation of Surrounded Islands, Florida, 1983

Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 1983 Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation

 

The challenges faced while working on the project

The Surrounded Islands project only took three years, “but it took many steps the public doesn’t realize that we took,” he told SouthFlorida.com. They had a tough time convincing the authorities to do this exhibition. “We had to show documentation of the projects we did in other countries to show how it was possible, like the umbrellas in California.”

“The biggest problem was finding fabric that floated,” he continued. Eventually, they discovered a company in Germany that could do it. “The color comes from the iron, which needed to be injected into the soup of the polypropylene fiber mesh. To make it buoyant, we had to inject microscopic bubbles of air into the fiber.”

They had to go to Jacksonville to meet with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as well as answer questions about disturbing the fish while preparing for the project.

“They ran traffic studies for bridges near the bay. It was a tedious process fighting lawmakers. But we convinced federal judge Lawrence King, who was dealing with drug trafficking cases in Miami at the time, to come down with a bodyguard,” Christo said about overcoming the government red tape.

 

The SIgnificance of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Surrounded Islands

Christo: “The real water, the real wind, the real calm, the real miles and miles, the real things, this is why this project had that enormous energy because it deals with absolute reality.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude helped establish Miami as the next contemporary art center, and today the city is famous for its art scene with fairs like Art Basel happening there every year. The artist duo also helped the economy of Florida because a lot of visitors came to see the Surrounded Islands in person which helped the tourism industry since visitors had to spend money on accommodation and food in Miami.

As mentioned earlier, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were also very eco-friendly. They cleaned the area of the eleven islands and also donated money they received from selling a thousand signed photographs of the Surrounded Islands to the Biscayne Bay Trust Fund.

Just like most of the works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude that function as ephemeral pieces, present only for a short time – the Surrounded Islands too was taken down after two weeks of display in May 1983. Christo and Jeanne-Claude made pieces that forever changed the spaces they chose for their projects by inserting their aesthetic into old familiar places, giving them new meanings, and creating a new history.

 

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“In ‘83, Miami was a pretty rough place. You know, a lot of people were migrating out West, away from it,” the Pelican Harbor Marina Manager, Tommy Salleh said. “We had a lot of riots in the inner city. The drug trafficking and the Cocaine Cowboy days. It really was a violent time in the city.”

“Christo comes, he does this beautiful art installation – ‘Surrounded Islands’, people start flocking to the bay, to the causeway,” Salleh added. “They’re taking pictures, videos and I think it ingrained something in a lot of people on the magic of the city and what it could be in the future, when you start investing in it.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83
Photo: Wolfgang Volz  © 1983 Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation

In 2018, Christo, then 83, appeared at a documentary exhibition that was held at Perez Art Museum Miami to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the work.

When SouthFlorida.com SunSentinel asked what it was like to bring the project back to Miami after all these years, Christo answered: “I was excited to return to the original site. Before Jeanne-Claude passed away, she looked for a home for it, from California to the Smithsonian. But it’s very natural to bring it here.”

“The enormous amount of material tells the real story of what happened, and it can’t be lost. In the exhibition is the real anchor, the real pink fabric, the real booms, the real drawings. It feels like a museum of natural history,” he continued.

Christo told Art Basel the project developed something that he doesn’t think any work of art had. “For months and months, and years and years, thousands of people thought how beautiful the project is and thousands thought how awful and ugly the project is,” he added. “No other work of art was discussed like that before it existed.”

“One of the most important parts of this project is – we’ll never do another Surrounded Islands,” the artist said.

The ephemeral quality of their work shows us the fragile nature of things, teaching us to live and enjoy things in the moment as Christo said: “I love to live this life among the real things. Not with television. Not where things sit comfortably in air-conditioned galleries and museums. With real human relationships, where everything is real.”

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Find more Arts & Culture Stories from TFword: HERE

Cover Image adapted from Christo and Jeanne-Claude website.

Photo by Wolfgang Volz © 1983 Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation

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