Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Rags Over the Arkansas

Colorado has lately become a rich trove for Bureau of Land Mangement (BLM) giveaways. The BLM is the Department of the Interior's pimp for federal gas and oil leases to commercial developers - several years ago, the ecologically diverse Roan Plateau on the Western Slope was swallowed up into BLM's leasing portfolio like a teenage Thai virgin into a Bangkok brothel.

The slightly-less-than-pristine Arkansas River Valley has now become another chit in the BLM's largesse. The agency has all but granted Christo's Over the River project a green light to suspend six miles of a silvery fabric on iron girders over a 45-mile stretch of the river where it snakes through a steep, narrow canyon along U.S. Highway 50. The BLM's final record of detemination becomes effective in May 2012 - among other things, a permit to sink over 9,000 concrete anchor points along an unstable and environmentally sensitive riparian verge.

This permit is being granted over strong disrecommendations from the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW), the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, and the Royal Gorge Management Area and local organizatons such as ROAR, while ignoring strictures imposed on the Arkansas Canyon as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, and in contravention of the BLM's own resource management plan. 

These "critical concerns" include habitat for an established bighorn sheep herd and seasonally resident bald eagles, nesting sites for peregrine falcons, migratory and summer residents like the black phoebe, a healthy rainbow and brown trout population, with the concomitant insect ecology that supports all of this diverse and curious biology.

The industrial-scale artistic project, proposed in an era when we have learned to prize and protect our remaining natural treasures, isn't being scrutinized with much care, either by federal agencies or by the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife (which is distinct from CDOW).The river corridor, much like the Grand Canyon, needs no aesthetic assistance from someone who is, roughly speaking, little better than a second-rate curtainhanger. 

Given what is understood of the fragile ecosystems comprising the river corridor; given the fragile economic balance of agriculture, basic community services and nature-centered tourism which currently sustains valley communities; given the traffic-limiting conditions of the river corridor which impact local health, physical welfare, and safety and travel efficiencies, the proposal smacks of a wrong-headed egomania that has suborned the agencies charged with preserving the headwaters area. The agencies have allowed Christo to interpret the scope and meaning of their own policy statements rather than the reverse.

The workmanlike drapery hanger has already left a trail of his industrial detritus in Colorado, failing to properly dismantle and remove his 1970s installation at Rifle Gap, where concrete "bunkers" . . . 

.  .  . steel I-beams .  .  .

.  .  .  and similar industrial junk was left behind to settle down mountainsides forty years after the fact.

Christo's artistic instincts are urban, on an industrial scale outmoded and antique in an era in which Americans have mostly learned to appreciate both the extent of our previous depredations on the natural world and the need to preserve what is still untouched. Christo and the BLM rationalize this proposed intrusion by pointing to the scrappy rural settlement already in place along stretches of the valley, without pointing out further that none of these installations are sited anywhere near current development. It's precisely the untouched stretches of riverway they want to festoon with WalMart's tawdriest awning material. 

As a work of art, the installation has been panned before it even exists. Writing in the Washington Post (10/22/08), art critic and historian Blake Gopnik noted that the project "is a conceptual and environmental dinosaur, a relic from the days when some land artists and designers aspired to create iconic art without regard to its environmental cost. . . ." And J. William Thompson, editor of Landscape Architecture, wrote in the April 2009 edition that "this kind of 1970s-era environmental art has more links to heavy industry—to old fashioned well drilling and dam building—than to some more recent art that’s been made with genuine ecological feeling." Exactly—the BLM gets well drilling and dam building.

Christo's installations are intentionally oversized, intended to overwhelm the landscape rather than to correspond with the subtle and ephemeral character of a natural place. Thompson's observation brings to mind another environmental artist, Andrew Goldsworthy, whose site-specific "land art", intended in many cases to be washed or blown away from the site on which he sculpted it, are exemplars of a modesty in the presence of the natural world that is the diametrical oppposite of the factory-scale automonuments of Christo. Here, among any number of long-dispersed artifacts noteworthy for their humility and humanity, is a Goldsworthy icicle star in an icy landscape, built with the artist's saliva:

I don't know much about art, but for my money an ounce of Goldsworthy's spit is worth a ton of Christo's s**t.

I'd be happy to let Christo peddle his draperies in Central Park or in parts of the country already paved over by urbanization, already accessible by six-lane roads, already awaiting with 20-storey hotels and Red Robin restaurants.

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