Few artists deserve the moniker “maverick” as much as Christo, and few documentarists are as attuned to the intersection of visual delight and strong personality as Andrey Paounov (“The Boy Who Was a King”). Neither man has any use for the wishy-washy, which is just one of the reasons why it was natural the latter should make a film about the former — and not merely because they’re both Bulgarian. “Walking on Water” chronicles Christo’s glorious 2016 project in which he unfurled a golden path across Lake Iseo in northern Italy, designed to let people literally stride across the gently undulating surface. The artist’s forceful character does battle with technology, bureaucracy, corruption and the elements, resulting in an installation of stunning beauty and a documentary that delights in capturing the act of creation. Art houses with regular documentary programs will have a crowd-pleaser on their hands.
It’s the audaciousness of Christo’s work, always with his collaborator, muse and wife Jeanne-Claude until her death in 2009, that puts him in the public eye. Whether encircling islands in pink fabric (“Surrounded Islands”), shrouding the Reichstag (“Wrapped Reichstag”) or snaking saffron-colored panels through Central Park (“The Gates”), his art defiantly snubs its nose at contemporary trends, reveling in what he proudly calls its uselessness. And yet beauty for beauty’s sake is never useless: It uplifts, delights and connects the beholders in a tangible bond of shared sympathy. His populist approach means you don’t need to read a dense explanatory panel full of jargon to understand what you’re seeing: You just need to experience it in person.
The concept for “The Floating Piers” had been kicking around for some time — Christo and Jeanne-Claude tried to create a similar installation in Argentina and then Japan, but were rejected both times. Fortunately the communities around Lake Iseo agreed, and Paounov was commissioned to chronicle the project during the planning stage in New York. It’s there we first see Christo, his cantankerous personality on full display during a Skype call. Impatient, tech-illiterate and not the best of listeners, the artist is also adept at knowing when to turn on the charm, whether for a classroom of children or a meeting hall full of potential collaborators.
The countdown begins 97 days before the opening, as Paounov and his crew witness the installation’s various stages, particularly the working relationship between Christo and his assistant and nephew Vladimir Yavachev, who British newspaper The Guardian memorably called (tongue-in-cheek) the artist’s major-domo. Yavachev has a handle on the technical requirements of such an ambitious project while Christo clearly is the dreamer, which inevitably leads to arguments. While hiccups are ironed out on the spot, there’s a thrill to watching a battalion of assistants put the floating platforms in place and then secure the fabric on top, fighting against the changeable elements when wind and rain lash at the pontoons. Finally opening day comes and a flame-colored walkway connects a small island with different parts of the lakeshore, allowing people to literally walk on the water.
The process and installation are only part of the documentary, since the major drama happens from day zero, when tens of thousands more people than expected descend on the small town and force Christo to temporarily shut down the project. The word “corruption” is never heard, and Paounov wisely only hints at discussions that clearly would be uncomfortable for the authorities who flouted crowd-control regulations. Things do get resolved, and viewers are treated to striking images of visitors on the walkways, basking in the beauty and boldness of Christo’s vision.
Judicious use, without exaggeration, of drone shots flying over the lake reveal a breathtaking panorama of saffron paths cutting across the blue water. Paounov’s eye for memorable compositions is apparent closer to the ground as well, such as a hallucinogenic evening sequence of visitors in metallic gold wraps, light playing across the surface of the reflective material. Original music, together with composer Steve Reich’s “Pulses,” organically heighten the sense of excitement. At the very end, Christo and Yavachev are in the desert of Abu Dhabi, scoping out locations for the long-gestating “Mastaba” installation — it should be quite a journey.