The documentary Walking on Water about The Floating Piers installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude was selected to open Sofia Iinternational Film Festival 2019. This choice is both strange and completely understandable: strange, because documentaries recording the construction and the short life of the grand installations by the famous Bulgarian do not stand out cinematographically. Works made in this specific genre (very much like concert films) are visually striking, masterly constructed, even thrilling at times, but amounting to nothing more than reports, recording the vision of one of the greats of the twentieth-century art. (I have attempted to clarify what precisely this art is in my monograph, The Performative Aesthetic of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Philosophic Alternatives j., 4/2017, https://www.ceeol.com/search/journal-detail?id=921.)
On the other hand, this choice of this country’s major film festival opener is only natural, for Christo is the most famous Bulgarian artist of our day and in history of art in general. It is no less intriguing that director Andrey Paounov, a multiple award-winner despite his not that extensive filmography (George and the Butterflies, The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories, The Boy Who Was A King) has made a name for himself as a myth-debunker.
The documentary genre, which is, of course, a component of Christo’s portfolio, allows not for the myth to be dispelled and Paounov knows better than going beyond the boundaries of his directing. It is charged with the interpretation of the already shot over 700 h of footage, rather than with the initial film concept. Christo and Jean-Claude would principally commission and personally pay for a meticulous coverage of their projects. A director is supposed not to dispel or create myths, but rather to just present the myth of Christo in a state-of-the-art manner adequate for the 2010s.
Thus Walking on Water becomes yet another media for ‘installing’ The Floating Piers installation. The division of powers between the director and the artist in the case in point is counter to what is typical of film and this is yet another artist’s aesthetical gesture of domination. Paounov has willingly taken a back-seat role, untypical both of him and of any contemporary film author, though from the classical Hollywood until the present-day film of superstars, director’s functions are more often than not performed within the service sector. The point is as to why one would sacrifice one’s ego and in this sense, the director, who principally is far from lacking in self-confidence, has completely blended in with his subject, which is both the artist and his creation.
The sole moment, when Christo looks small and uncertain to some extent, is the episode with the Sistine Chapel. He came here prior to the construction of the work on Italy’s Lake Iseo. The episode is a wordless internal monologue, where the contemporary artist, famed for being a brilliant painter and portraitist, seems to get to know that everything great has already been painted. One has to make something never done before to leave one’s mark on art and be remembered as standing alone. Still, does creating what has ‘never been done before’ make you one of the greats? Doesn’t the very idea of it seem sacrilegious?
Otherwise, Christo reluctantly speaks of his creative impulses inspiring him to make one or another of his works or interpret the meaning, undertones, social or existential aspects of his artworks. Being a Gabrovian, he believes in art’s practical worthlessness and that is what he deems to be art’s supreme value. I think that he is more of a Bulgarian than it seems at first sight, but in a way different from what Bulgarians would like him to. He insists not on his personality receiving any special exposure in the documentaries: his presence is recorded in a genuinely journalistic style, the viewpoints, angle shots and shot-by-shot breakdowns have not been purposefully composed, neither do they follow an initial visual concept, seeking a special artistic effect. Christo feels uneasy about being represented as a disgruntled, extremely demanding, suspicious elderly man. As an author, he needs to be in constant opposition but not to just prove right, but rather for the sake of his works. Even his flaws make him feel closer rather than smaller. The scale of his works bespeaks best of Christo’s personality and ideas. Neither of the previously made documentaries about the monumental installations by Christo and Jean-Claude: Valley Curtain (1974), Christo in Paris (1990), The Umbrellas (1994), The Gates (2007) contains so many shots with the artist.
Yet, what can film additionally contribute to the immediate experience of a work on its site? On the face of it, the director seems to resort to some quite traditional tricks to create suspense and arouse audiences’ interest such as the usual clock ticking towards the deadline and accentuating the risks facing each of the stages. Carefully are highlighted the threats to the implementation of the project: red tape, the elements, and simple human incompetence always lurking around the corner.
Along with that, the main danger is in fact a major component of the artwork, i.e. the visitors flocking to see it. It has been created for them, but they pose the greatest risk of its closure. They do not just look and experience it, but spend some time in it, inhabit it, becoming part of its concept and an element of its transient life.
In this context, the episodes showing the influx of crowds, the river of human bodies on the floating piers are the most monumental, the most powerful image characterising the artwork’s value. An episode of searching for a missing kid in the unceasing influx of visitors fits in only naturally with this context.
Among the most active scenes in the film that look like stage effects to build suspense are those dominated by gusts of wind and heavy rainfalls, threatening the implementation of the project. We are aware though that art would eventually get the upper hand over the vicissitudes of the weather.
These episodes come in fact to illustrate yet another component of Christo’s aesthetic concept. His art is a total negation of conceptualism, which is satisfied with speculative suggestions of a creative idea. There is nothing virtual in Jean-Claude and Christo’s artworks, which are quite real, and brilliantly executed too. They have no other meaning beyond their materiality on a particular site, which reaches its plenitude in the interplay with the elements. In this sense, rain, winds, storms, waves, sands are artistic devices and elements of the entire image of Christo’s works, shaping them in the way in which the silver fabric of the Wrapped Reichstag in June 1995 caught in the river breeze from the Spree suggest the idea of an enormous kite that will at any moment take to the air.
Eventually, the ease and naturalness of Walking on Water, disguised as reportage, comes out on top. With all the drama of the incorporated in the story scenes, strengthened by the choleric intransigence of the demiurgic superstar, which in fact makes Christo just more human, the film succeeds in conveying the prevailing atmosphere of spontaneous fun in those 16 days of 2016. The film story is an occasion for those million and a half visitors, who experienced it live and to whom the piers wrapped in orange fabric were just a venue, to delight in it once again. The rest of the spectators stand a good chance of coming to realise that truly great art may just present them with entertainment and (almost) nothing else.