THE FLOATING PIERS
A few months back my son Dylan suggested he and I go to see Christo’s upcoming exhibition in Northern Italy. “Definitely!” I said and we were off.
Christo is said to be the most famous artist in the world for two weeks every ten years. Christo is the Bulgarian-New Yorker who, with his wife Jean Claude, has been planning and executing spectacular happenings for nearly 50 years. You may recall The Gates in Central Park or The Running Fence in Marin. Christo and Jean Claude have wrapped buildings, islands and draped canyons. The installations take years, even decades of planning, and cost millions. The projects involve dozens of permanent staff, hundreds of event people and millions of witnesses.
This from Christo’s website: “Christo pays the entire costs associated with The Floating Piers himself, including the permitting process, manufacturing, installation and removal of the project. He earns all of the money through the sale of his preparatory studies and early works from the 50’s and 60’s. He does not accept grants or sponsorships of any kind. He does not accept viewing fees. He does not accept donated labor (volunteer help). He does not accept money for things like posters, postcards, books, films or any other products at all. None. Christo firmly believes that to accept deals of this kind would alter and compromise his art. Refusing this money assures him he is working in total freedom.” The whole affair cost about 18 million euros. I don’t know what that is in real money but it sounds like a lot.
Jean Claude died recently but Christo, in his mid 80s, presses forward. The Floating Piers consisted of 220,000 two foot cubes of plastic locked together and covered in a heavy gold fabric. And it wasn’t just piers. The adjacent villages had their streets wrapped with all the edges carefully seamed around every twist, turn and lazy dog. An island in the middle of the lake was surrounded with the pier as well. This island is owned by the Beretta family of shotgun fame. They say that the firm has been run by a Beretta for 15 generations since filling the first order of 185 harquebus gun barrels from the doge of Venice in 1526.
A friend of Dylan’s was connected with the Christo family and she graciously swept us into the entourage. My son Tyler and his wife Kelly just happened to be at a conference in Florence so they came as well. It was pretty high tone stuff at the hotel where the entourage was billeted. At one dinner I was chatting with Tinseltown’s David Geffen who is an avid collector of Christo’s work. David had come by boat which we later found anchored off Portofino. (at 454 feet it is the ‘old’ yacht that Larry Ellison built in 2004)
The technical undertaking of Christo’s projects is terrific. First Christo conceives of the design then he and his team scour the globe for a suitable location. At one point they considered sites on at least three continents. Then the elaborate permissions are applied for. Millions are raised and manufacturers of the materials are engaged. The Piers were assembled over the course of an entire year. The event was open for two weeks and now the whole thing is being disassembled and recycled which will take six months.
So what does it all mean? When Christo is asked what his pieces mean he says they don’t mean anything. It is just a treat. There are critics who declare that it isn’t art*, whatever that is. Others say he should give the money to the poor. Of course there would be no money if there was no performance. This is an interesting conundrum. One man’s art is another person’s overindulgent fantasy. Christo’s sees this and the resulting dialogue becomes wrapped up in the project and becomes part of it. Christo welcomes all viewpoints. From a certain perspective everything we do beyond living in a cave and eating squirrels is hedonistic, no?
The overall effect for me was to be fully present for the event. Many of us, me certainly, often time-shift parts of our existence. Thinking about what we did and what our plans are often come at the cost of what we are actually doing. So on a bright sunny day with some members of my family and tens of thousands of other folks we walked on water and just were.
Tyler brought his camera drone and with Dylan made a most evocative two minute piece (look up macniven christo video)
*What is the definition of art. Art is whatever anyone says is art. I know a blind alley, right?
DAMANHUR AND THE TEMPLES OF HUMANKIND
So there we were winding along the road near Turin in Northern Italy and Dylan got a text from a friend telling him that this friend had heard of a commune which he thought was very near where we were.
It was a crystalline summer day as we pulled into the parking lot of Damanhur. The battered sign didn’t give much away. We were surprised to find hundreds of people celebrating the summer solstice (essentially Hippy New Year) and since it was a commune this made sense. In the compound’s office amid tie-dyed people trading mystical crystals and copper amulets we asked about a possible tour. A sparkling young woman said yes, yes they would love to show us around. A fit Italian fellow who looked 35 but told us he was in his 50s took us around the grounds. He showed us the amphitheater, the sacred gardens, shrines with inscrutible lettering and energy spirals.
It all seemed pretty standard stuff as we are from California and I have seen my share of fringe beliefs and macramé. The only really compelling part was when he pointed out the house where the teenagers
can live if they choose to when they are 13. No one over 22 can live there and the only rules are you have to get good grades in school and you can’t do drugs or drink. Those appear to be the only rules.
Of course they have schools, cafeterias and workshops too. There are presently 1,200 Damanurs at this location and they live throughout the valley in houses which were largely vacated in the 1970s when many locals went to the big cities for work. Since the population fell from 35,000 to about 5,000 this became a good opportunity to buy houses cheaply.
It was a nice place and we liked the vibe of pantheistic, solar powered good cheer but we didn’t learn much. Actually it was a bit of a letdown as we were led to believe that the temples were extraordinary so we went back to the office and asked if we had really seen the temples. The woman said, “Oh no, do you want to see the Temples?” We agreed that we did. She called a fellow who came in a van and we got in and started up the hill past modest 19th and 20th century houses and small farms. We passed an old Olivetti factory and our driver told us it was being used as the Damanhur’s art center and grocery store. These folks seemed to be pretty well established.
The area is at the foot of the Alps very near Switzerland and they get a good deal of rain. In the summer it looks more like Hawaii than Italy. After about 20 minutes we arrived at an unremarkable 1950s era house. There were kids toys in the driveway and a barking dog. All what you would expect at a simple country home. A woman came out and greeted us with a friendly, “Namaste.” Then she said, “I understand you would like to see the Temples. “Indeed we do.” I said. With that she led us into a small vestibule were we stepped into a modern elevator.
It seems the Damanhurs were founded by a charismatic leader called Falco. He had had a successful career as an advertising executive and he decided with some friends to start digging a hole in the earth at this certain spot because the harmonic frequencies of the rock were unlike anywhere else in the world. Also his parents owned the house. They dug in secrecy at night and in the morning had a hole 3 feet deep. A little disheartening at first but each night they continued with pick and shovel. This was in 1979. Years passed and they continued to dig and to build something. But what? That’s the question the local building officials and eventually a local magistrate wanted to know. When questioned Falco said nothing was going on but one of the members had become disenchanted and turned evidence of a certain something going on over to the police. The Carbonari can be a bit sticky what with their machine guns and dramatic hats. When Falco refused to divulge what was going on the police threatened to dynamite the hillsides if Falco didn’t give up what he was doing.
Rumors of the hippy cult had spread and been amplified and the locals began to sharpen their pitchforks. The Damanhurs had a council meeting and felt they had nothing to really hide so they invited a local judge who came with some policemen and down they went. They were underground for some time and when they came up the judge was in tears at what he had witnessed. He pledged to preserve and protect the Temples of Humankind and he has done so.
The elevator door slid open and we entered into a small hallway which led to a door. Our guide took us through and we stepped into one of the most remarkable places I have ever been. I’ve been to the top of the Great Pyramid (coincidently with Dylan too), I’ve seen Petra and I’ve explored the ghost cities of China. This was in the top four for sure.
We found ourselves in a vaulted room covered with photorealist murals of people who live and have lived at Damanhur. The mosaic floor on which we stood depicted a woman drifting in space holding a cell phone floating toward the space shuttle. Another scene on the floor was of an old woman playing chess with her younger self. All the chess pieces were of modern buildings like the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Our guide explained that the Temples are a book telling the story of the times in which each temple is built. Just then a half dozen red robed figures appeared at the top of the stairs and silently glided down and out a hidden door. All around the room we found small ceramic effigies which are self portraits of the members of Damanhur. The room is supported by soaring columns and the stained glass ceiling is worthy of The Louvre.
We ascended the stairs and found yet another temple even grander than the first one. This one depicted the world’s great religions in stained glass windows of a quality I had never imagined. Each was in a different style and each a masterwork. Some of the glass was in three dimensions and many of the figures in the murals reached out into the space as well. All was artificially lit as we were at times 100 feet underground. The surface of the walls is composed of cement and marble dust and it took decades to perfect a workable technique to adhere paint as they are not just underground but essentially underwater. We took our time strolling through the labyrinths and discovered that there are nine temples the last of which is under construction.
Hundreds of artisans working for decades have bent to this task. For me it was very much like finding hippy heaven under your mom’s house. I read one figure that the whole excavation is around 300,000 cubic feet. As time went by the Damanhurs set aside the pick and shovel and discovered jackhammers and cement mixers but still the whole place has the intimacy of a Faberge egg combined with the grandeur of the Vatican.
The many Temples are done in varying styles but there is an overarching theme of the humans progress through life, love, conflict and death. In the last room we were challenged to find the door we came in but looking at the many possible doors along the wall we were at a loss to find the way we had come. We came in one door and out another. Like life. The final door led to a hallway with an Egyptian motif and as we stepped through our guide touched a switch and a theatrically massive stone rolled on tracks plugging the door hole like in a movie. This bit of architectural whimsy solidified my love affair with these people.
I found the Damanhurs thoroughly welcoming and completely transparent. You can come to visit for an hour, a day or stay a lifetime. They have rooms in the temples you can rent and celebrate your religion or use one of theirs. They do profess a market basket of new age beliefs such as energy vortices, metal worship (such as elaborate copper bracelets that ward off evil). This sort of thing generally leaves me cold but it usually expresses itself with a few tragic trinkets and then everyone gets stoned. But these seem like very sober people to me. They have jobs out in the real world and they seem to spend their time promoting brotherhood, ecology and kindness. If they want to hang some crystals in the wind that’s ok with me.
Il Giardino Dei Tarocchi
As I now have you tripping to Italy you should go to Il Giardino Dei Tarocchi or the Tarot Gardens as well. This is a 14 acre sculpture park built atop Etruscan ruins south of Florence. Under construction for decades from the 70s it is the life work of Niki de Saint Palle who left the glittering world of being a high fashion model in Paris to build 22 glittering monuments to the tarot.
The building frames were composed of steel armatures then sprayed with concrete. Ceramic tiles were applied, dried, and then removed for glazing and firing. Metal, mirrors and marble complete the skins. The figures range from grotesque earth goblins to rotund females with nipples that became opening doors to the interiors. The whole place is filled with plants and the overall effect is Daliesque fever dream.
While the Damanhurs focus on spiritually transcendent group participation the Garden is the singular vison of an erotic earth mother. Niki was heavily influenced by Gaudi in Spain and the Surrealists of the early 20th century. She even paid a visit to Watts Towers in Los Angeles.
I know a good many Italians and almost none of them have heard of the Temples or of Tarot Garden. I find this immensely puzzling.
Next I will no doubt discover that the average Chinese person is unaware of Kingdom of the Little People in Szechwan. This is a village of mushroom shaped houses where dwarfs and midgets have been brought for good pay and free housing if they are willing to perform twice a day as soldiers from a fantasy kingdom. It’s an amusement park many don’t find amusing. Me, I’m sticking with the Damanhurs.