A look back at Christo's famous Surrounded Islands
The early 1980s were days of strife and tribulation for Miami. Race riots, refugee crises, violent crime and drug trafficking, a sinking economy, decaying neighborhoods, white flight: This was Paradise Lost, dismissed by the world, even many of its own citizens, as a hopeless has-been.
In the midst of the gloom, the Bulgarian artist known as Christo and his French wife, Jeanne-Claude, arrived in town with a literally outlandish proposal: To dress 11 trash-strewn spoil islands in Biscayne Bay in floating hot-pink skirts. They asked for no money, pledging to personally bear the full cost. The elaborate installation would be in place for two weeks, then removed without a trace.
Miami's response, when not downright hostile, amounted to a collective, dumbfounded "Huh?"
Thirty-five years ago this month, after nearly three years of an intense political and legal fray, every bit of it recorded and documented as an integral part of the art project, Christo and a 430-person crew laboriously unfurled millions of square feet of specially made pink fabric for seven miles up and down the bay amid public skepticism and blustering late-spring squalls.
When the clouds parted, Miami was forever changed.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "Surrounded Islands" — the shimmering sensuality of the pink fabric framing lush vegetation against the rippling blue waters of the bay — became a jubilant, popular sensation at home and abroad, in one sure stroke resetting the world's idea of Miami.
Today, many date the moment of Miami's rebirth to that singular, ephemeral work of art — to be commemorated this fall in a major exhibition at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, which is itself marking its 35th anniversary. ("Surrounded Islands" and the museum have linked histories: The founding director of the Center for the Fine Arts, the PAMM predecessor, first invited Christo to Miami to consider working there.)
"It's part of our history — it started the resurgence," said Harvey Ruvin, then a Miami-Dade County commissioner and crusading environmentalist who at first fought the project and voted against it on ecological grounds, helping send it to what briefly seemed to be political doom.
Ruvin changed his mind at lunch with Christo and Jeanne-Claude after the morning vote, a conversion caught on film by legendary documentarians the Maysles brothers, who trailed the couple everywhere as they tried to win approval for "Surrounded Islands." When commissioners reconvened that afternoon, Ruvin led a move for reconsideration that resulted in a unanimous vote in favor.
Ruvin, who became lifelong friends with Christo and Jeanne-Claude (she died in 2009), is glad he did.
"It was something all of us will always remember," Ruvin, today the county clerk, said. "It was so beautiful. Everybody was talking about it. I remember going home over the causeway at sunset, with the sun back of me and the light hitting the islands. It was iridescent. I had to pull over to the side.
"The beauty was there all the time and I never noticed it."
Images of those pink-skirted islands, which seemed to float like giant artificial lily pads in a vast urban pond, were broadcast and published around the globe, captivating many who began to see Miami as a place worth checking out.
They also drew the consideration of the world's cultural cognoscenti to Miami for the first time, providing a critical boost to the city's incipient evolution into a center for the arts. Young artists who worked on Christo's crew, based in then-decrepit Ocean Drive, discovered the Art Deco district and moved in, setting the table for the South Beach renaissance.
For once, the news from Miami, broadcast to millions of Americans in the morning and then again in the evening, was good news indeed.
Miamians were transfixed, even gleeful, with the fresh attention and the glorious spectacle in their front yard.
For 10 days in May 1983, rubber-necking motorists turned the edges of causeways into parking lots. A steady stream of boats paraded by the islands. Condo residents hosted viewing parties on their balconies. Helicopter and small-plane pilots flew streams of passengers over the bay, and packed tour boats ferried locals and visitors to the islands.
Pan Am Airways flew lucky guests over "Surrounded Islands" in a jet clipper that, to circle the bay, had to turn at Bimini, recalls Joe Fleming, an attorney who represented Christo during the labyrinthine permitting and approval slog that the artwork required.
For many Miamians, "Surrounded Islands" prompted a reawakened pride of place, he said.
"A lot of people did not understand what it was until they saw it," said Fleming, who grew up in Miami. "What Christo did is turn everything around and let everyone see what we have here as only an artist can do. It was a celebration of the beauty of this place expressed by a great artist and genius."
Only it almost didn't happen.
Christo Javacheff, a refugee from Communist Eastern Europe, was already well known for audacious, temporary works of environmental art, which included wrapping in fabric sections of Australian and Rhode Island coastlines and a Roman wall in Italy. He had also installed a fabric fence that ran 24 miles through farmland in Sonoma and Marin counties in California before dipping into the Pacific Ocean.
Winning approval, environmental permits and community support for his pieces, often in the face of angry opposition and complex legal challenges, is a critical ingredient in Christo's art. So is paying for everything himself. He accepts no grants or sponsorships and finances each work by selling preparatory drawings, collages and lithographs.
Christo was first brought to Miami to consider a local project by Jan van der Marck, founding director of the Center for the Fine Arts at the Cultural Plaza in downtown Miami. Van der Marck had worked with Christo on projects in Chicago and Colorado. (The museum was later renamed Miami Art Museum and then PAMM after a move to a new bayfront home.)
But Christo said he and Jeanne-Claude had visited in the early 1970s for an exhibit of their work in a local gallery. Having just come from working in a mountainous place, they were immediately taken by the topography of Miami and the bay and the proximity of water, causeways and islands.
"Suddenly we were in a very flat place," Christo told the Miami Herald recently in an interview over the phone from his New York studio, noting that many of his works center on the meeting of moving water and sturdy earth. "We were very inspired by the horizontality of the site. You had this incredible area of Biscayne Bay. I remember we were looking at the islands. They were lonely, like they dropped from the sky in the water."
The idea of surrounding the islands in pink, he said, was Jeanne-Claude's.
But many in Miami did not take kindly to their proposal, questioning how placing polypropylene fabric around an island could be called art. Some dismissed the idea as preposterous; others though it some sort of scam. Fleming recalls getting threatening phone calls.
Environmental groups sued, worried about harmful effects on birds and marine wildlife in a once heavily polluted body of water that only recently had undergone a dramatic recovery following a cleanup.
Throughout it all, Fleming said, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were unflappable, responding patiently to every serious objection. The design for the fabric surrounds, which required tethers anchored to the islands and bay bottom, was rigorously engineered to avoid damage to the environment.
The fabric, which Christo said required 15-foot-wide machines in Germany to manufacture, was tested in the water with manatees underneath it to make sure it did not affect their ability to breathe. In fact, Fleming and others have said, the manatees took to it, breeding under the material. The artist's team included a marine biologist, two bird experts and several engineers and builders.
The plan for the artwork underwent painstaking reviews by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state and county regulators. Virtually everything they asked for, Christo agreed to, even when it cost him more money, Fleming said.
"His position was, 'If something is reasonably necessary, I will do it,' " Fleming said. " 'If there is anywhere I have to go to explain it, that's part of the art.' It was incredibly interesting, and challenging."
The film crew accompanied them everywhere, even when Fleming was huddling over a permit application with a bureaucrat inhibited by the cameras and the sound boom hanging over the lawyer's shoulder.
"The whole thing was sort of, not for a recluse," Fleming recalls. "That someone would take these drawings and plans through the overregulated legal system that we have — I mean, we had hearings on hearings — it's hard to believe.
"But Christo's concept was that everybody was part of the art — the agencies, the objectors and the people who supported it."
Christo has said there's a purpose to the seeming madness: It gets everyone in the community talking about the art and its implications. In Miami, he said, it led many thousands of people to consider the fragility of the Biscayne Bay environment.
The process culminated in a nerve-racking, multi-day hearing in federal court in front of U.S. District Judge James L. King. A complex settlement was hashed out, giving Christo and Jeanne-Claude the final green light for "Surrounded Islands."
The agreement, enforced by King, required monitors in boats to circle each of the islands around the clock while the art was in place, and a strict series of conditions that Christo and his crews hewed to religiously, Fleming and Ruvin — who volunteered to assist in the installation — said.
Christo's crews also cleared the neglected islands of decades of accumulated refuse, including dumped appliances, that weighed about 40 tons.
"Christo and Jeanne-Claude both had this attitude, that they were going to spend their money, and people would not understand that, and in the end, if they did everything right, people would love the project," Fleming said. "They had a lot of faith in the art. They were totally correct."
The results exceeded even the giddiest expectations of supporters. Installation was finished on May 7, a few days late because of the stormy weather, under considerable time pressure: Permits would be expiring, hurricane season was about to start, and Christo was determined to have "Surrounded Islands" ready to bask in the light of the longest days of the year.
PAMM curator Rene Morales, who is overseeing the "Surrounded Islands" exhibition, was a boy at the time. His family arrived from Cuba just three years before. Morales' father, hardly an art fancier, drove them to a spot near one of the islands to take it all in. The curatorr said he recently reminisced with his dad about the event.
"He said, 'Que maravilla,' " Morales said. "It was amazing. He was really blown away. "
Others were, too. PAMM chief exhibition installer Jay Ore worked on Christo's crew on "Surrounded Islands" when he was 17. On a recent stay at the Standard hotel in Miami Beach, Christo said, several front-desk workers proudly told him they, too, helped him on the installation.
Some crew workers were so awed by the experience that they hesitated to cash their paychecks because they wanted to keep Christo's original signature, Fleming said.
"Sometimes you have something flash by you in life and you say to yourself, 'Is this real?' " Fleming said. "This is one of those. There are many stories of people who worked on this project, and they all say their lives were enriched by the experience. It was just a joy to be involved."
Morales, the curator, said "Surrounded Islands" succeeded so resoundingly because there was little elitist or obscure about it.
"This was very much art for the people," he said. "This one in particular is so pleasing, so much about beauty. Christo and Jeanne-Claude were so much about blowing those barriers away. This project did that as well or better than any other they've done. It's a paradigmatic project."
The exhibition, opening in October, will consist of pieces Christo collected and saved from "Surrounded Islands." The pieces have been shown in Europe and Japan but never in the United States, he said.
The exhibit, to be staged chronologically to tell the story of the work's planning, approval, installation and brief life, includes drawings, photographs and prints, legal and engineering documents, a large-scale model of the artwork and actual materials salvaged from "Surrounded Islands," such as lengths of fabric, cables and anchors used in the artwork, Christo said. The Maysles brothers documentary, "Islands," will be screening as well.
Christo, who plans to attend the opening, said he wants visitors to understand the "angst and drama" of the long approval process and have a chance to see a bit of "the real thing."
And it's all for sale, with one large caveat: The buyer must take the whole collection and keep it intact. Each piece is stored in a specially designed crate "like a jewel case," Christo noted. He hopes it will find a permanent home, perhaps in Miami.
As to "Surrounded Islands" itself, the fact that it exists only in the memory of those lucky enough to have seen it is precisely the point, he said.
"The project is temporary, but it's still in the mind of the people," he said.
Tailored and stitched, literally, to its singular landscape, "Surrounded Islands" could only have happened in BIscayne Bay in Miami, and nowhere else, Christo said.
"All our projects have their own life. Every one is unique. We never surrounded another island. We never built another Gates. We never built another Floating Piers. We never wrapped another parliament," he said, refering to famed subsequent projects.
"It happened once in a lifetime, and never again."
The Surrounded Islands exhibition will run at the Pérez Art Museum Miami from Oct. 4 to Feb. 17, 2019. Christo will deliver a lecture at 8 p.m. on opening day.