Christo's Umbrella Project: Art and Environment

Updated on October 5, 2019
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Catherine's interest in this Christo project comes from a love of outdoor spaces and a background in art. She was also there to witness it!

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Beyond the Museum

During World War I, Marcel Duchamp turned the traditional art world on its head by leading the Dada Movement. So began the making of art out of everyday found objects and rejecting any prevailing standards of aesthetics. Art would become an experiment and eventually an experience.

In the 1960s the Happening Movement made headlines, and the Avante Garde artists of the Fluxus Troupe involved the spectator in public displays and street performances.These were often haphazard, and the process was more important than the outcome.

This gradually evolved into the Performance Art of the 1970s where the use of the video camera.allowed the artist to share it on a continuous loop. Installation Art exhibits, a close cousin, welcomed public interaction. Spectators were encouraged to walk through, touch and explore exhibits in a multi-sensory way.

Environmental Art continues to incorporate all of the above, involving work on a larger scale in an uncontrolled environment and being of short duration before being permanently dismantled. The thing these movements all have had in common is that they have taken art beyond the gallery or the museum wall and into a place where it can be experienced as living art.

I am an artist, and I have to have courage. . . Do you know that I don't have any artworks that exist? They all go away when they're finished. Only the preparatory drawings and collages are left, giving my work an almost legendary character. I think it takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain.

— Christo

Over many years, I had made the gradual climb through the Grapevine of the Tejon Pass on my way into California's Central Valley without much thought beyond dodging the big semi trucks or the possibility of my car overheating. That has all changed since I witnessed the bright yellow umbrellas put there as a living art project..

Bulgarian born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and his Moroccan born wife Jeanne-Claude were both born on the same day, June 13, 1935. They met in Paris in 1958 and began a life-long collaboration as environmental artists. Their public installations have always been on a grand scale and, although short in duration, involve years of planning. The conception of The Umbrella Project began in 1984.

The Preparation

The preliminary stages involved defining the creative concepts, choosing sites through visits, studying topographical maps, and making sketches so others could visualize the project. Once this was done, arrangements had to be made to cover the expenses, secure permits, hire lawyers to handle controversy, and find the suppliers, manufacturers, engineers, and laborers.

Christo liked to refer to this project as a "symphony in two parts." He had to hire two Project Managers to oversee the logistics. One in Southern California and one in Japan. The California part of the project, although larger in area, involved 25 landowners. Japan's proposed site involved 459 landowners and was far more complicated.

The individual umbrella parts were manufactured by eleven different companies within the United States, Germany, Canada, and Japan. The cloth was custom dyed in Germany then sent by ship to San Diego to be laser cut and sewn together by topnotch sail makers at North Sail, the company that made the sails for the America's Cup race. The metal parts were tested for stability and the umbrellas assembled in Bakersfield, CA. They were then shipped to Japan when completed.

Each umbrella was 19.5 feet tall with an impressive 28 foot diameter and a weight of 448 pounds. There was a square platform to fit over the steel anchor plates that could serve as a place for spectators to sit.

The Cost

The 26 million cost was financed by The Umbrellas Joint Project for Japan and the USA Corporation. Christo and Jeanne-Claude served as the corporation's presidents. There were no corporate sponsors and no use of public funds from either country. Christo did not want to be obligated to anyone.

All money was raised through the sale of Christo's related artwork. These included scale models, preliminary sketches and diagrams, collages, drawings, and lithographs which were sold to museums, galleries, and private collectors.

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The Tejon Umbrella Project

The Tejon Pass, also called the Grapevine, connects California's rural Central Valley with the urban outlying communities of Los Angeles County via the Interstate 5. In spring the mountainsides are usually covered with native orange poppies, blue lupines, and yellow wildflowers. By summer's end, however, they become an ochre brown from the dried grasses and are dotted with rock outcroppings and native oaks.The bright yellow umbrellas chosen for the arid landscape stood out in perfect contrast to the shadowed clefts and sunlit ridges.

The placement extended over 18 miles. Some followed the straight lines of the ridges and others could be seen sticking up on top of them. Many were placed along the sides of the dirt roads off the main highway, and a few stood in reflective ponds of water. Most impressive was the scope of the project, the sweeping panoramas, and an otherworldly feel as if flying saucers were hovering over the hillsides.

It was Christo's desire to have people interact with and wander among the umbrellas, to touch them, and to bring picnics, cameras, and sketchbooks. Engagements and simple wedding vows underneath them were not uncommon.

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The Japan Umbrella Project

Across the globe in the Ibaraki Prefecture in the Kanto Region North of Tokyo, bright blue umbrellas were placed along 12 miles of National Route 349 near the Sato River. Unlike the scattered placement in the more open areas of California, the groupings here were closer and more intimate. The umbrellas were placed near villages and often followed the lines of the rice paddies. Many were in the river and along its banks. Blue was chosen as the color here to represent the water and wet rice fields.

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Installation and Exhibition Timeline

  • December 1990: The placement of the steel anchors and base plates were overseen by contractors and construction engineers in both locations.
  • August and early September 1991: The raised platforms were secured over the anchoring plates.
  • Mid September to October 7 1991: 1,900 community workers joined the nearly 500 contractor and construction workers to install the umbrellas.
  • October 9, 1991: At daybreak the 3,100 umbrellas were opened simultaneously with one of the artists present in each location.
  • October 26,1991: The umbrellas were permanently closed, and the dismantling process began.

The steep terrain in Southern California and the sometimes turbulent waters in Japan's Sato River made it necessary to use cranes and helicopters for some installations. Christo would not use volunteers and paid all workers. He used people from the local communities to join his professional teams: students, ranchers, villagers, farmers. In all, there were nearly 2,000 who helped.

The Project was to last three weeks, but was sadly cut short after eighteen days. A bystander was pinned against a rock and killed when strong winds upended one of the umbrellas in the Tejon Pass. Christo permanently closed all umbrellas out of respect. Ironically, there was a second fatality in Japan during the dismantling process when a worker struck some power lines.

Whether you loved it or hated it, if you saw The Umbrella Project, you'll never forget it! For me, it was magical, and the vision will never leave me. It brought life into those brown hills that has never really left. When I pass through there today, I still visualize those umbrellas. The installation was done with respect for the environment, and that concern made a big impact on me too. Christo would not allow vehicles off the main roads, and when the exhibit was dismantled, there were no traces left behind. Most of the materials were recycled.

The artist sums it up well:

"There is no make-believe, no theater, no spectacle. And for me, the real world involves everything: risk, danger, beauty, energy, all we meet in the real world. This project demonstrated that everything is possible because it is part of reality."

Jeanne-Claude died in 2009 of a brain aneurysm.

Christo is 84, lives in New York, and plans to wrap the Arc de Triomphe in his upcoming Project for Paris.

Questions & Answers

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      • cat on a soapbox profile imageAUTHOR

        Catherine Tally 

        3 months ago from Los Angeles

        Thank you, John. It made a big impression on me, and I will never look at those mountainsides without remembering those bright yellow umbrellas! I appreciate the thoughtful comments. Take care! :)

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        3 months ago from Queensland Australia

        Thank you for sharing this Umbrella Project, Cat. What a monumental undertaking and expense for something only temporary. However, I am sure it had quite an impact on those who experienced it and the fact that most of the material was recycled afterwards is worthy.

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