Monday, November 14, 2011

Over The River: Can Waterway-Themed Demonstration Art be Harmful?

If you drive north from Los Angeles on Highway 5, you drive through a remarkable pass.  After meandering upward past the Santa Clara River and hillsides of chaparral, you enter a wide valley, a 'triple-point' of sorts where the Mojave Desert, the chaparral-covered coastal mountains, and the foothills around the Central Valley all come together.  After cresting the Tejon pass at just over 4000 feet of elevation, you plunge into an extremely steep and narrow canyon known as 'The Grapevine' - both because wild grape vines carpet the canyon walls, and because the road itself twists up the canyon like a giant vine.  Approaching the area from the north at night, from the flat Central Valley, the row of taillights ahead appears to ascend, in a wide bend, straight into the sky.

A lot of people funnel through this pass every year, and the passage isn't easy.  The wide Central Valley to the north creates a giant funnel, channeling not only travelers, but also north winds, straight into the pass.  Winds near hurricane force are not uncommon in the winter.  Clouds often form as the air rises over the pass, creating dense fog.  Worst of all, because the pass captures winds and moisture from the colder north, blizzards often rage on the north side of the pass, even when Los Angeles, 50 miles to the south, is sunny and warm.  Meanwhile, in the summer, dry heat from the Mojave Desert and Central Valley build in, leading to temperatures well over 100 degrees, and dozens of overheating cars on any summer day.  Because of the unique climate, blue oaks and buckeye trees normally found further north grow on the north side of the pass, while a few miles to the south Joshua trees are clumped in the gullies.  It is a place of convergence, but not a gentle place.  Even today, passing through The Grapevine can be treacherous, and the pass is known for its road closures and chain-reaction accidents.

The pass is a prominent and important place, and in 1991, two artists - Christo and Jeanne-Claude - decided to fill the pass with giant umbrellas as part of a giant art exhibit.  The effect was visually fascinating, but I can't help but speculate that if the artists thought this was a good idea, they had never tried to drive through this pass during a winter storm.  Sure enough, by late October a windstorm swept into the area.  One of the umbrellas was ripped from the ground and tossed at several people looking at the art exhibit... and a woman was crushed and killed by the umbrella.

Christo is now planning to stretch 7 miles of fabric over the Arkansas River in Colorado.

Tejon Pass
(above - approaching the Tejon Pass from the south.  Clouds banked up against the mountains in winter sometimes warn of a localized blizzard just around the corner)

I feel torn when thinking about this project.  I was 12 when the umbrella tragedy occurred, and still remember hearing about it.  I'm very concerned that stretching fabric over a wild river could cause a similar tragedy.  On the other hand, I a very interested in demonstration-based art, and if this art project draws attention to the river, perhaps it will have some benefit as well.  Still, I can't help but think this project isn't a good idea.

There seem to be many possible concerns.  How will all of the noise and disturbance along the river, with this feature installed, affect humans and animal use of the river?  What if a repeat of the Tejon Pass incident occurs, and wind from a summer thunderstorm rips the fabric off of its support system?  It seems unlikely to kill anyone, but the fabric could be ripped to shreds in the river, creating various problems.  The area is prone to thunderstorms with torrential rain and hail.. I am assuming the fabric is porous but would it hold up to an inch or two of hail piled on it?  Will the canopy frighten animals away from the river, depriving them of water?  Will eagles and osprey (are there osprey there?) be unable to fish in the area?  Will insects that normally access the river avoid it, causing starvation of fish?  Will the loss of sunlight from the translucent canopy harm the trees along the river?  Also, on a political note, will allowing this project set the precedent that a rich person can do whatever they want to a river, regardless if it is harmful ecologically or culturally to the region?  The only possible upside I can see to this project is that it may attract people to the area who may spend money in local towns... but how many people would go to look at fabric stretched over a river, who wouldn't just go to see the river in the first place?  Setting up the project may create temporary jobs, but what about doing something else that creates jobs, like removing tamarisk or restoring damaged riverbanks?

I guess i just don't 'get' it.  I haven't been to this river, but I have been to several over rivers in the Rockies, such as the Cache de la Poudre and the upper Colorado.  These rivers are beautiful on their own, and I don't see how some shiny fabric would make them more appealing.  I've already witnessed a bunch of artificial material inserted into rivers, ranging from garbage to concrete channel liners to debris from structures destroyed in floods.  Unnatural 'stuff' in or around rivers doesn't strike me as art.  It strikes me as litter.

The point of this post isn't to slander an artist.  Christo has made some interesting and neat art, and I think the idea behind the art (getting people to look at a landscape in a different way) is an admirable one.  I just think this particular project, like the umbrellas project, is horribly misplaced.  Instead of defacing a relatively wild and recreationally popular river, why doesn't Christo call attention to rivers impacted by humans?  This could be a very neat project stretched over the concrete channel lining much of the LA river.  Even better, what about placing river-colored canopies over Pittsburgh's lost channels or the historic creeks around San Marino in southern California?  I know it isn't my place to tell an artist what to create, but I also think we have the right as a country and as local residents of a place to tell an artist 'no' if their large-scale art project could be harmful, dangerous, or destructive.

I know the project is controversial, and for it to be controversial, it must have its supporters as well.  If any come across this blog, I'd love to hear from you.  Perhaps there is something about this project I don't know...  Do the 'mitigations' to make up for damage caused by this project seem sufficient?  Is it really likely that thousands of people will make a trip just to see this feature?  What do you think?

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