Say this for Walking on Water, Andrey Paounov’s documentary on the installation artist Christo’s 2016 effort to mount an enormous orange floating pier on the surface of northern Italy’s Lake Iseo: there are no talking heads yammering on about the brilliant vision of the man who famously wrapped Germany’s Reichstag with his wife and artistic partner Jeanne-Claude. (While she may have died in 2009, she still gets a sidelong mention in the closest thing we get to an explanation of the works from Christo himself: “They exist because we like to see them.”) And say this as well: the film does what it apparently sets out to do, which is to give some account of two statements Christo makes to a group of schoolchildren early on in the proceedings: “I love real things,” and, “When you are an artist, you are all the time artist.”
Taking the second part first: the great bulk of the film is taken up demonstrating that being “all the time artist” absolutely does not mean making art all the time. Or even thinking about making art all the time. It’s something simultaneously more transcendent and more mundane: great loads of dull care in the service of a grand artistic idea. Yes, the film opens artily enough: one man alone in a semi-decrepit workspace, cutting a section from a photo with an exacto knife, then gluing it onto a large drawing of his floating dream, then adding some finishing touches before spraying the whole thing with fixative. But even that is later revealed to have been done for the sake of the larger project. At one point, he tells his crew that the whole affair is being financed by the sale of his other works, and it turns out that large drawing is just one of 40 being given the hard sell in a nearby apartment-cum-gallery. “Until a week ago, this one was 1.6. Today, it’s 2.2…” That initial bit of artmaking, it seems, was really just fundraising.
A cynic might argue that every piece of art an artist creates is at bottom an ad for the artist himself, and the film’s “What’s next for Christo?” conclusion might seem to give credence to that notion. But if it’s true, then Christo is not just a remarkable artist, he’s a great actor as well. Because the overwhelming impression he gives throughout is that for him, it’s all about the work, and not the man behind it. Except, perhaps, insofar as it gives delight to that man. How else to explain what he endures for its sake? Paounov does a fine job of making the parade of adoring VIPs who approach him during an exclusive soiree in the courtyard of the island villa that serves as his pier’s terminus sound every bit as tedious as the government functionaries discussing the project’s logistics (in unsubtitled Italian, no less) during an interminable meeting. And those are the less troublesome parts. The film attempts to punch up a slack patch with the drama of a missing child, and while it feels overplayed, it does highlight the very real logistical problems involved in letting thousands of people march across a lake on several kilometers of fabric-wrapped foam. And how do logistical problems get solved? More meetings. And maybe a press conference, to remind impatient visitors that they need to engage the actual space they are visiting — the real wind, the real weather — and that patience is part of the experience. Christo, as he told those schoolchildren, loves real things, and doesn’t mind being patient himself in service of them. As he tells one kid who asks him about it, “It’s not patience, it’s passion.”
Passion is what Christo exhibits: unfeigned, childlike excitement for the work at hand — or at least, in mind. The idea for the pier came in 1970; two previous attempts to build it met with refusals. He pressed on. His tantrums during the pier’s assembly are not the tyrannical indulgences of a self-regarding genius; they are the brief, pointed outbursts of a man under pressure who wants to get things right. When he sees his creation start to come together, he marvels to himself, “Fucking awesome.” Then he glances upward. “Look at, God.” (And it is something to look at, especially from above.)
But while Paounov may do a good job of showing how your major art installation sausage gets made, that doesn’t mean it’s always, or even mostly, a thrilling sight. The thought “we get it” may occur from time to time. Christo is something of a technophobe. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved in public art installations. Self-promotion is part of the deal, and that includes appearing in countless other people’s selfies. We get it. I would have liked to learn a little less about tedium and weather concerns and a little more about the actual design and creation of the pier. As it is, all we hear is a line about how it took 220,000 cubes and screws and 195 anchors, plus an argument about how best to secure the orange swaddling. There are moments, however, when he pauses over the wind-rippled fabric, the gold-foil parkas of rain-delayed pilgirms, or the masses following that wave-rocked path over the water and makes you feel a bit like Christo did. Look at, God. It’s a delight to see.