The Floating Piers

  • Photography  Mara Palena
  • Text  Anna Sanders

Photography: Mara Palena
Text: Anna Sanders

Christo and Jeanne-Claude first imagined a fabric covered walk-way, connecting one land with another, in the 1970s; their dream was finally realised in June of this year, several years after Jean-Claude’s passing. This final collaboration from the celebrated pair saw 220,000 polyethylene cubes, weighted to the bed of Lake Iseo and undulating on her surface, covered in yellow cloth: a sun rising from dark waters.

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Mara Palena, an Italian documentary photographer, spent a day at the installation, drawn by the phenomenon it created, and the public’s reaction toward it. Crowds brought public transport to a stand still, opening hours were reduced due to concerns over wear and tear, and newspapers offered advice, “suggesting how to behave on the structure, like a leaflet” remarks Palena. “Everyone had a different reason why they were spending that day walking through an ‘Art Pier'” she continues, “I guess my reason was to observe the others and document the experience. For me it’s the perfect stage; it’s very easy to find an unaware subject when everyone around you is taking pictures too.”

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Weaving a cinematic, and at times theatrical thread throughout her work, Palena effectively highlights certain themes – in this instance, the homogeny of tourism. Through her use of colour, repetition and framing, a shared, familiar narrative is created. Images sit parallel to each other, disjointedly sharing a landscape. In one a woman wears a floral trimmed sun-hat, in the other a child sits slumped on her fathers shoulders, her face hidden by her pink ‘Hello Kitty’ cap. Visitors stretch out beside one another, amble in symmetry, and smile for selfies – individually; as kissing couples; and three generations of family, arms around one another.

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Over 1.2 million people visited the piers during the short time they were open; intentionally ephemeral, Christo remarked to The New York Times, “The important part of this project is the temporary part, the nomadic quality. The work needs to be gone, because I do not own the work, no one does. This is why it is free.”

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Funding the $17 million project by the sale of his original drawings and sketches, The Floating Piers, in their universality and accessibility, belonged to the public. Engagement with the installation was encouraged – people removed shoes to feel fabric underfoot, picnicked at the golden shores, and dove into the surrounding waters. “There were people from the staff giving a piece of fabric at the end of each pier, like a souvenir of the experience,” Palena remarks, “everyone that had been there was part of the installation, that’s why I wanted to document the experience”.

Photography © Mara Palena