Documentary Review: The Artist Christo wants us to join him “Walking on Water”

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“Walking on Water” begins with old man in his studio, sketching with charcoal, drawing, painting and gluing together a piece of art that he promptly hangs on a wall when he finishes.

It is the artist in action.

Ah, but this is Christo. Anything he can hang on the wall is just the mock-up. This fellow is known for pieces with “SCALE.”

“Walking on Water” is about the Bulgarian artist Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, known to the world as “Christo,” famous for his imaginative environmental (as in out of doors) installations. These fanciful pieces are vast, site-specific, colorful and temporary works that he and partner Jean-Claude have decorated hills with umbrellas, wrapped islands and bedecked Central Park in New York with (“The Gates”) over the decades.

Now in his 80s, Christo had — the film tells us — “disappeared from public view” after the death of collaborator Jean Claude died in 2009. “Walking on Water” would mark his return to the game.

“All the projects are works of art,” he tells a class of school children. “And totally useless. We make them because we want to see them.”

“Art is not a profession. Not nine to five. You are artist and do art ALL the time.”

He talks the talk and in this case, and in every other one, he walks the walk.

The works are self-financed, ephemeral and often intrusive. For that reason, Christo and Jean-Claude were denied permission to follow through on their ideas more often than not.

“The Floating Pier” was to be a three kilometer long walkway on Lake Iseo in Italy.  In 1970, they had proposed doing this very project on the Rio de la Plata in Argentina “but we never got permission.” They tried again on Tokyo Bay decades later. Again, no dice.

But Christo never let go of the concept; a thin, fabric-covered floating walkway that would give those walking on its undulating surface the feeling of “walking on water.”

Filmmaker Andrey Paounov (“The Boy Who Would be King”) follows Christo through the months leading up to this installation in the summer of 2016.

We see an impatient, snippy and demanding artist, easily irritated — either in person or chewing out his production team via Skype.

“No No No No No! Later Later Later!”

There is no art, he suggests, without shouting.

“This ees HORROR story. HORROR story…My WAY. IDIOTS! Total idiots!”

His fixer, the guy that makes things happen, is Vladimir Yavachev. He’s the only one who gets to shout back. And as Christo pushes his idealistic idea forward — technology makes it a lot more feasible today — Vladimir is charged with making it work. Or telling him “No.”

“It’s NOT going to work…”Two kilometers of this? Chain? You might as well use rope.”

That was Christo’s idea for how to hold the chain onto the interlocking plastic floating blocks that are what make up temporary docks, piers and platforms that float in this day and age.

“Walking on Water” shows Christo selling drawings and conceptual paintings of his idea to finance it, and just what it takes to put a 50 foot wide (guessing) walkway in place, crossing two inlets on an Italian lake and surrounding a cute little island in the middle of it.

Christo pitches in, snapping the dock pieces together, shoving them in the water. It looks flimsy, his helpers tell him and we can see for ourselves.

He gives talks, meets with art collectors, pauses for a selfie with a cook and takes time off to do a commission for an African charity headed by Pope Francis.

It takes seamstresses, sewing machines, thousands and thousand of those snap-together block, a fleet of inflatable dinghies and a helicopter to put this thing together.

And on opening day, it rains.

The tantrums don’t stop when the 16 day installation debuts. The towns around the lake are flooded with people. An onslaught of paparazzi alone looks like it could sink the damned thing.

And as he watches CCTVs showing the crowd control and viewing/walking tide of onlookers, a sea of people, tens of thousands of them, Christo has another revelation.

“Eees madness. TOTAL madness! We can be sued. Can we be sued?”

He leaves it to Vladimir to deal with infamous Italian bureaucracy and its infamous practitioners.

“You are stupid,” Vladimir says, echoing his boss. “As stupid as is possible!”

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But we’ve already seen what a rock star the octogenarian still is. Why is he surprised that tens of thousands have come and hundreds of thousands are expected?

Paounov’s film is so straightforward as to be the very definition of “documentary,” observing call, covering an event and what leads up to it like a dispassionate news reporter.

But “Walking on Water” not only shows the artist in action, it gets at why these gimmicky and despite what he says (“We never repeat ourselves!”) repetitive thematic artworks are so popular with the public, and have been since the 1960s.

Whimsy on this scale is hard to find.

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Christo, Vladimir Yavachev

Credits: Directed by Andrey Paounov. A Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 1:40

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