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1983: 'Surrounded Islands': It's art with audacity

This review from the Miami Herald archives of artist Christo's Surrounded Islands on Biscayne Bay appeared on May 6, 1983.

Not yet completely unfurled, there is enough of Surrounded Islands out in Biscayne Bay to prove itself a work of art.

This, the "live" aspect of Christo's piece, an extended, elongated and floating work of 11 parts, will never be framed on a wall or plunked down on a pedestal.

Even so, it is most definitely art, bits of green rimmed by a band of pink. That pink is gorgeous, a word chosen to evoke the style of audacity, a color chosen to introduce the aesthetic of blatancy, an idea developed to nudge the viewer into a new awareness.

If you are a latecomer to the Christo project, someone who has been oblivious to the nearly three years and $3 million that have gone into this art work, you have the best chance of appreciating Surrounded Islands on an aesthetic plane alone. In fact, the statistics with which the public has been regaled are no longer viable considerations, any more than the price of a paint brush of Rembrandt's might be pertinent to either the glory or the enjoyment of his Polish Rider.

That is not to push a comparison between Christo and an Old Master, but just to suggest that any work of art sent out to communicate its meaning or its beauty to the public joins the ranks of all the other works of art that have already made the journey.

With Christo, of course, the trip is short. Only two weeks to see it, to participate in its complexities as a viewer, after which Surrounded Islands becomes a series of weighty documents and visual memories.

What Christo has done relates directly to pageantry, and to other of those ancient rites that functioned to erase apathy from a given society. Think of such public entertainments as fireworks displays, triumphant parades, morality plays. Long on preparation time, and elaborate, they were short-lived and geared to be delivered from an authority to a needful public.

Christo's stance is different -- he sweet-talks authority -- but he has his didactic ways. Biscayne Bay, for instance, is about as natural a beauty spot as Interstate 95. They each have a negligible resemblance to the original condition of this area, and both have man-made and adaptive elements that serve local lifestyles in authentic ways.

It was Christo who made the important distinction between them by his efforts, recognizing that one was prettier than the other. He underlined that difference in pink polypropylene, a color and a material heady with ironic commentary, as apt and as teasing to this area's reputation as Roy Lichtenstein's choice of a "mermaid" as a subject for a commissioned sculpture for Miami Beach.

While that mermaid symbol is forever, we have Christo to thank for the eventual passing on of the pink polypropylene. In its tangible paper phase, however, Surrounded Islands will last, joining the rest of the Christo oeuvre, to be included in art books, in museum holdings, as slide materials for classroom use, framed and for sale in galleries, framed and at home in private collections.

In short, Surrounded Islands will appear everywhere that describes the art establishment Christo set out to out-distance. The same thing happened to Marcel Duchamp, the spiritual father of all non-art works of art, who more than 70 years ago established art as an intellectual act. It was Duchamp who freed art for the great expansion it has since undergone, who paved the way for Christo. When he was told, however, that his irreverent works had become establishment icons, his answer was, "Nobody's perfect, hm?"

Right, although there is always a compromise. Christo makes saleable products, but it is a case of the practical means supporting the idealistic ends.

That it all worked and came to pass in Miami gets us into art history with a work of art that is easy to love. Surrounded Islands truly looks beautiful, the double island wrapping especially, along with the surprise places here and there where small patches of green have been left unwrapped to punctuate the care taken not to disturb the regular life of the islands. It is all very light looking, and although any means taken to view the piece is worth the effort, a helicopter provides for the optimum visual experience.

From that vantage point, the work appears to alternate its pictorial and sculptural profiles, the light, the air and the distance working the magic of constant change.

Seeing all the islands from on high makes clear, too, what Oscar Wilde meant by "Art is not a thing; it is a way."

Christo has found that way with Surrounded Islands.