IN THE 1990s, the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude first proposed hanging six miles of silvery curtains over the Arkansas River, in southern Colorado, west of the Royal Gorge. Hung from steel cables anchored to the high steep banks of the river, it was to remain there for two weeks, and be high enough above the water to let recreational rafters pass easily underneath it, enjoying the view. After spending $6 million so far on studies, plans, and proposals, the project is still working its way through the various hurdles that have emerged to stop it, most recently a lawsuit filed by an organization called Rags Over the Arkansas River (ROAR). While we wait to see how this plays out, not holding our breath, let’s revisit two other Christo/Jeanne-Claude art sites to see what we can find, and to explore how their temporary installations might actually linger on, physically, afterwards, and how the echoes of the work might continue to reverberate in unanticipated, but provocative ways.
A VISIT TO THE VALLEY CURTAIN SITE
Christo and Jean Claude have, of course, hung curtains in Colorado before. In 1972, the Valley Curtain project succeeded, after a failed attempt a year earlier, in hanging a thousand-foot wide orange curtain across a canyon known as Rifle Gap. The curtain remained there for 28 hours until it was destroyed by winds.
Rifle Gap is now, as it was then, a narrow canyon a mile long, with a two-lane road going through it. At the north end is the Rifle Gap Dam, built by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1967, and the Rifle Gap Reservoir, behind it. At the southern end is a golf course and resort. The land of the Gap is part of Rifle Gap State Park.
The curtain was hung at the narrowest point in the canyon, near its southern end. A main cable, 1,368 feet long, composed of a set of four cables next to each other, supported the curtain, which was hung from 11 clamps along the cable. The cable was strung from two concrete anchor points, one on either side of the canyon, each weighing more than 850 tons, which were poured onto the solid rock walls of the canyon. Tie-down lines at the bottom of the curtain were connected to 27 concrete and steel anchors on the floor of the valley.
Today, many and probably all of the concrete and steel tie-downs are still there, though none of them are very apparent. They lurk in the grass and among the rocks on the lower slopes of the canyon. Steel beams and other scattered concrete bricks were found on the slopes as well. A number of steel anchor points were bolted to rocks, and are still attached. Both of the main concrete cable anchors were visible high up on either side of the canyon. It should be noted that none of this material would be visible if you were not looking for it, and once discovered it seems to enrich the site, rather than detract from it. Though the curtain is no longer there, the remnants suggest its existance, and confirm the site. They also frame the view, suggesting other curtain-like forms in the valley:
Collapsed Plastic Curtain
There was a closed turn-out on the road through the Gap, with a shelter and a public restroom, just a few hundred yards from the curtain site. Barrels had been used in an attempt to indicate that the facilities were considered closed by (presumably) park maintenance crews. Strung from the barrels was plastic fence material of the type found at construction sites. Much of this fence material had fallen on the road, due possibly to the strong winds in the area.
A snake of unknown variety was seen heading towards the Gap and the curtain site. It was noted that the shape of the snake, thick in the middle, tapered at either end, and undulated over its length, resembled the form of the curtain.
It was rather apparent that the Rifle Gap Dam, a mile from the curtain site, was a kind of curtain too. It spans the canyon from side to side (of course, the canyon continues past the dam, though it is submerged). It also holds back another curtain-like form: the wall of water behind it.
A VISIT TO THE RUNNING FENCE SITE
The year Valley Curtain was completed the couple began work on Running Fence, one of their most ambitious projects. It called for constructing a 24.5-mile long, 18-foot tall fabric fence across northern California’s Sonoma County. The fence was made of 2,050 steel poles, topped by a cable, from which sections of the fabric fence was suspended. It took four years to prepare, cost $26 million (of their money), and required an Environmental Impact Statement that extended to 450 pages.
The completed piece was up for two weeks, in September 1976, and then was taken down, as promised. The poles were uprooted, and all the earth anchors that held the lateral guy wires, two for each pole, were hammered three feet into the ground, to be out of the way of plows and mowers. The poles and the fabric were offered to the 59 private property owners who agreed to have the fence cross their land, with the rest scrapped. A number of the ranchers accepted and found new uses for the material. Here are some of the lasting Running Fence monuments still extant in the hills and dales of Sonoma County:
Running Fence Powerline
At one ranch, Running Fence poles were reinstalled in the ground to support an electric line running to a pump in a pond.
Running Fence Dropcloth
Fence fabric has been draped over the rafters in barns and outbuildings to keep barn swallow droppings and bat guano out of work areas.
Running Fence Flagpole
Running Fence ran from Highway 101 at one end, to the ocean on the other. Along the way it crossed fourteen roads, where a gap was left open so traffic could pass. It also went through one downtown, the small community of Valley Ford, where it crossed the road next to the post office. This pole was cemented into the ground, and was not removed–it was transformed into a flagpole and left as a monument commemorating the piece. A brass plaque at the base of the pole describes the project, and states that “no visible evidence of Running Fence remains on the hills of Sonoma and Marin Counties today.” That, apparently, is disputable.