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Art of the miraculous

Christo invites us to walk on water

If the miracle of walking on water is reserved only for the likes of Jesus, then controversial Bulgarian-born American artist Christo can at least claim to have achieved the next best thing with his latest spectacle ‘Floating Piers’. He's got the same name, so who better?

The US$16.8 million public artwork comprises 3km of floating yellow walkways that skim along the surface of Lake Iseo, in northern Italy, connecting the waterside town of Sulzano with two small islands.

Some 40,000 visitors are expected to tiptoe across them each day during the two weeks the installation is open, until 3 July.

Christo has gained notoriety for his large scale public art works: he wrapped Berlin’s Reichstag like a christmas present and surrounded two islands in Miami with pink fabric. Floating Piers is his first solo work, completed without his wife and long-term collaborator Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009, and is based on an idea he had 46 years ago.

Critically, there is no safety fence, a feature Christo requested to maintain the impression of walking on water. Instead, a small army of lifeguards and monitors scan for anyone taking an unexpected dip.

The walkways are held aloft on a modular floating dock system made up of 220,000 high density polythene blocks, each about 20 per cent bigger than those used in marinas, and more buoyant. The system undulates with the movement of the waves and lift the walkways just above the surface of the water.

Four different manufacturing companies were drafted in to ensure there were enough supplies to float the idea. Several dozen workers connected the cubes in 50ft by 330ft sections using giant screws on the water in a sectioned-off area of the lake.

One at a time, the rafts were pushed into the lake and anchored to 5.5-ton concrete slabs laid out on the lake floor in a special configuration devised by the artist. The process took over four months.

The rafts were covered in felt then a 100,000 m2 layer of marigold-yellow nylon fabric. The material is porous enough to prevent any embarrassing slips and slides or changes in colour due to  the level of water saturation.

‘Those who experience the Floating Piers will feel like they are walking on water – or perhaps the back of a whale,’ commented Christo on his website. ‘Light and water will transform the bright yellow fabric to shades of red and gold throughout the 16 days.’

When the short-span installation ends, the blocks will be sold to an Italian recycling company for about half their original cost. It's arguably a small price to pay to give 640,000 people a thrill normally reserved for the saintly.