“Human beings like to experience something absolutely irrational.”
Bulgarian artist Christo’s statement, existential in nature, applies to virtually all assets of human nature; yet it has special resonance in both the worlds of culture and travel. They are realms where implausibility holds hands with adventure; and where the unthinkable is the fuel that fires emotional connection.
Alongside some 90 professional rock climbers and 120 installation workers, Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude (who passed away in 2009) saw 24 years’ worth of studies, negotiations and concepts come to fruition in the shape of 1,076,390 square-feet of thick, woven polypropylene fabric with an aluminium surface and 9.7 miles of blue polypropylene rope plunged over Berlin’s Reichstag in 1995. Five million flocked to see Wrapped Reichstag in person, and 200 million watched it on television. Then, two weeks later, it was gone.
“That is an aesthetic decision”, said Jeanne-Claude of the ephemeral nature of their work. “Limiting the duration is a way of endowing our work with those feelings of love and tenderness: those things that do not last – like childhood, or like our own lives.”
Unlike many artists, whose works are tied to commissions, sponsors and gallerists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have self-funded each of their implausible installations (7,503 gates of saffron-coloured fabric placed on the paths throughout Central Park; 200,200 square-feet of curtain spanned across a valley in Colorado; and a three-kilometre-long walkway extended across the water of Italy’s Lake Iseo), meaning their ephemerality can be safeguarded: they are singular moments in time.
“Part of the magic is that nobody can buy the project”, Christo declares. “They are all about freedom. Nobody can own them because freedom is the enemy of possession, and possession is equal to permanence. This is why when the project is exhibited for a precious two weeks, nobody – not even I – can own them. That is why the principle element is cloth or fabric – it’s the nomadic quality of the project. They are fabricated off-site, then finally in a matter of a few days or hours, they are there and then they are gone forever.”
Experience. Irrationality. “Freedom is the enemy of possession.” It is easy to draw parallels between the art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s and the experience of travel: the essence of both is deeply rooted in transience and the desire to live unrepeatable experiences. As travellers seek new ways to ignite the essence of freedom, monumental installations and temporary art experiences are drawing more visitors than ever before. Running between 18 June and 3 July 2016, local officials say Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Floating Piers attracted some 1.2 million visitors, while police reports suggest figures in excess of 100,000 per day.
Predating Instagram culture by almost a decade, Olafur Eliasson’s poignant The weather project was one of Tate Modern’s first major hits, and an indicator of where public narcissism would wind up, as some two million would arrive to inhale the fine mist and to experience its gargantuan, symbolic sun. Many, though, were more captivated by lying back and watching themselves in the mirror foil that ran the entire length of the ceiling. More importantly, the Icelandic-Danish artist’s landmark installation was one of the first of a new wave of ‘must-see’ blockbuster art events – the sort that has brought contemporary art to an entirely new audience, and the sort that now sees some making travel decisions based solely on ephemeral acts of creativity.
Whether any Banksy fans will return to Weston-super-Mare remains to be seen, but North Somerset Council’s Chief Executive, Mike Jackson, was over the moon with the street art icon’s 2015 art event: “Dismaland has built up our confidence to try something a bit different”, he said. “Culture and the arts, as part of the cultural economy, have a key role in the future of the area. North Somerset is rich in culture, arts and heritage, and we want to make the most of that.”
The run-down seaside town was considered by many to be part of the dystopian vision, but, nonetheless, the numbers for the five-week art extravaganza were impressive: the launch triggered six million hits to their website per minute; 150,000 visitors to the exhibition; a £20 million boost to the local economy; a 50 per cent increase in hotel stays; 9,000 extra visitors to Grand Pier; and the town becoming the year’s fifth most photographed place on Instagram in the UK. Whether the likes of Brad Pitt and Jack Black will come to sample the town’s infamous nightlife remains to be seen, but it sure proves the pulling power of significant art events.
Sometimes works like these are created to satisfy little other than their artists’ creative desires: “we are artists; we do things for no particular reason”, barks Christo in response to being asked about the ephemeral nature of his works; and sometimes works are conceived with luring tourists very much in mind.
“I’ve witnessed reefs deteriorating dramatically, and I want to do something about it”, says Jason deCaires Taylor, the artist behind a Cancun project aimed at drawing some of the hundreds of thousands of annual visitors away from the area’s natural reefs and toward the featureless seabed. “Reefs are at the forefront of climate change: they’re one of the first ecosystems we could lose. It’s a critical problem that needs to be addressed right now.” In 2013, 100,000 out of 500,000 visitors to the protected area visited deCaires Taylor’s Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA).
After seeing the great success of his Mexican project, and more importantly, the positive impact it had on the environment, the British artist officially opened Europe’s first underwater museum, Museo Atlántico, in January. Cast in a pH-neutral marine cement, the series of emotive sculptures are textured to encourage coral growth – figures that poke fingers at greed and over-consumption, selfie culture and humanitarian crises, sank to the ocean bed off the coast of Lanzarote – a boost for marine life and the island’s ecotourism credentials alike.
Ephemeral Museo Atlántico may not be, but its very nature ensures travellers need to make a real effort to see it – deCaires Taylor encourages the sort of enlightening experience of which the figures in his work Crossing the Rubicon, engrossed in their digital devices, are in desperately need. “Just like the inhabitants of Pompeii were frozen in place with the eruption of the volcano, I try to petrify the common man in his everyday life. This helps me look at the society in which we live and the kind of life that we have from a more distanced perspective, as if I was looking at our human civilisation from an extra-terrestrial point of view.”
As contemporary art has crossed over to the mainstream, artists have more resources at their disposal than ever before – and their exhibitions and events are increasing on a scale as fantastical as their imagination. Kara Walker’s two-month marking of the sugar industry’s uncomfortable past at Brooklyn’s derelict Domino Sugar Refinery, starring a 75-feet-long, 35-feet-high bleached-sugar sphinx, saw Olafur Eliasson filling an entire wing of Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art with a landscape of stones and water to recreate the bed of a dried-up river.
Brands, too, cash in on the combined success of art: projects like Nike’s Paris basketball court have collaborated with design and photography agency Ill-Studio and with fashion brand Pigalle, while their New York equivalent has worked with acclaimed artist KAWS. Local councils also engage with art projects on annual events, like Le Voyage à Nantes and Las Vegas’ Life is Beautiful Festival – but those projects, alongside those whose lifespans are so fleeting, require the extra mile and shine brightest for the most emotionally connected of travellers.
“I want painting to be such an important visual part of our lives”, says Katharina Grosse, the German artist behind a powerful two-month transformation of a Rockaways building, “not only in the museum, but really inscribed into the body of our environment.” Scheduled for demolition after being devastated by Hurricane Sandy, the colourful installation served as a final hurrah for the iconic building, and represents the sort of emotional connection that gives such potency to these sorts of public works. “I find it fascinating that part of my practices are so ephemeral, and part of them aren’t as ephemeral”, she continues. “But the way they’re treating the planet right now – I have no idea what is ephemeral.”
At a two-year-old exhibition located in the desert outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains features seven 30- to 35-foot-high fluorescent totems of huge, locally sourced boulders. Critiquing the simulacra of destinations like Vegas, it is both physically and symbolically somewhere between the natural and the artificial. It is also wildly illustrative of the reason behind why so many are making the effort to tick installations like this off their cultural bucket lists.
“I’ve been travelling the world according to art since 1999”, explained independent art curator Natalie Kovacs to The Hollywood Reporter during its inauguration, “and this is the most satisfying arrival. And it changes all the time. It’s even more beautiful today with the clouds.” It was left to another unnamed reveller to surmise this story best, though: “We spend so much money trying to be happy, and who knew a bunch of colourful rocks could make people so happy?”
After all, for all the months and years spent conceived in an artist’s studio, out in the wild sometimes artwork is consumed by way of its most primal quality: pure joy.
James Davidson is Editor-In-Chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.