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In 1980, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude were invited to Miami to consider completing a work for the New World Festival of the Arts, a large-scale festival spanning the visual and performing arts during the summer of 1982. Their visit would connect them to Miami’s nascent art scene and inspire their self-funded project Surrounded Islands, completed in May 1983, for which the artists transformed Biscayne Bay by surrounding eleven islands with a pink polyethylene fabric. Bridging public sculpture with earth art, Surrounded Islands became one of the couple’s most iconic works. The Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM)’s recent exhibition on Surrounded Islands commemorated this monumental project thirty-five years later, detailing both the process and production of its temporary two-week installation. The exhibition’s meticulous and expansive documentation regarding ecological concerns and artistic considerations helped reinforce the work’s mythological prowess.
The exhibition opened with large black-and-white photographs of Christo and Jeanne-Claude walking along the bay, the bareness and flatness of which came to influence the artists. To the left of the photographs was a large map of Biscayne Bay, marking in pink and green the islands that were once surrounded with the artwork. These images served as a precursor to the show, which incorporated archival materials alongside more artistic presentations of Surrounded Islands. Included were relics of the temporary and iconic work and, toward the close of the exhibition, a large-scale and partial model of Surrounded Islands. The overall arrangement emphasized the horizontality or flatness the artist duo found so alluring about Miami and its waterways. The breadth of materials presented throughout the exhibition, from environmental reports to large glossy photographs, were neatly organized across multiple galleries and made explicit the audacity of the artistic endeavor.
Original mixed-media renderings by the artists both function as original works of art and, alongside photographs of Surrounded Islands, helped fund the project, which cost over $3 million. Most compelling, however, were the cartographic surveys of the islands, which include the polyethylene fabric as an additional border fanning from the irregularly shaped shorelines. Unlike the finished mixed-media renderings and glossy photographs, these surveys reveal a technocratic and deliberate ordering to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s process. Likewise, renderings by oceanographers and engineer firms such as Greenleaf/Telesca made explicit the bureaucratic and collaborative nature of their project and corresponded to the multiple documents addressing its ecological and legal concerns. Along the gallery walls, xeroxed copies of public notices and other files contributed to the visual panoply of the exhibition. Binders allowed visitors to rifle through ecological surveys and court cases inspired by apprehensions over the ecological impact of the project. One document contained the proceedings of a civil case in a US district court by the National Wildlife Rescue Team, Inc., against the artists and their collaborators on the basis of potential environmental damages. Another, the “Report on Seagrass and Materials for Surrounded Island Project,” was prepared by Applied Marine Ecological Services, Inc. The exhibition encouraged both an expansive visual experience modeled after Surrounded Islands and a more meticulous engagement with a reconstituted archive.
The setting of PAMM was especially fitting for this exhibition. PAMM was formerly the Miami Art Museum (MAM) and a predecessor of the Center for the Fine Arts (CFA), founded in 1983 in Downtown Miami. The first director of the CFA, Jan van der Marck, was a major point of contact, having established a relationship with Jeanne-Claude and Christo a decade earlier in Chicago, when he was one of the first curators to commission their work in the United States. While these institutional ties were not made explicit within the exhibition, the space of PAMM proved ideal for promoting the artists’ ephemeral vision decades later. Located along the bay, the Herzog & de Meuron building is itself an iconic structure within downtown Miami, one that engages the relationship between artifice and nature in a manner parallel to Surrounded Islands.
Perhaps the most impactful part of the exhibition was the gallery featuring the materials used for Surrounded Islands. Placed upon two long, low-lying pedestals, the pink plastic material, buoys, and fabric-wrapped timber made explicit the materiality of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s project. Viewers could experience the crumpled woven texture of the fabric, as well as its bright bubble-gum pink color. The materials corresponded nicely with documentary photographs capturing the different forms of labor that went into the production of Surrounded Islands, from the weaving of the fabric sent from Germany to its delivery at a local warehouse to its eventual installation. The exhibition made clear the communal nature of the project and its relation to varied publics around Miami, as much as it celebrated the expression of the artistic duo.
Although the exhibition effectively explicated the aesthetic and cultural impact of Surrounded Islands, it unfortunately divorced the artwork from the historical contexts of South Florida in the early 1980s. By many accounts Miami was consumed by crisis. In what is now commonly referred to as the “cocaine cowboys” era, Miami was a city marked by notable violence, especially with regard to the homicide rate and drug trade. The McDuffie race riots and Mariel boatlift refugee crisis of 1980 were fresh on everyone’s minds. In November 1981 Time featured a cover story on South Florida with the provocative title “Paradise Lost?” Beyond the presented ecological concerns, one wonders what Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s jovial pink project meant in such times. Was the project perceived as a sign of the excesses of wealth developed from the drug trade, or a welcome distraction from notable inequality and racial tensions within the city? The lack of attention to the broader social and political tapestry of Miami was perhaps the most unfortunate part of this exhibition, as it could have spoken to the power of public art within a critical moment of the city’s history.
In some ways, perhaps, the exhibition contributed to the role of spectacle in contemporary society. For philosopher Guy Debord, spectacle functions to emphasize image over lived experience. As a public work, Surrounded Islands provided a new visual imaginary for the sprawling bay and greater city. While the artists drew inspiration from the environment and perceived cultural frivolity of greater Miami, the work also belied lived urban conditions. Further, the work’s association with artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude—then rising celebrities within the art world—provided significant clout among the social elite within the city. This translates directly to today, as one can question the role of art and its publics in Miami given the wealth associated with events such as Art Basel Miami Beach. Publicity for the PAMM exhibition emphasized the iconic nature of Surrounded Islands, branding it as a pivotal piece in redefining the city’s growing prominence within the art world. Advertisements reproduced photographs of the artwork throughout the city, including on the Metromover cars, Metrorail trains, and local buses. Small exhibitions with reproduced works from the main exhibition were also featured throughout Miami International Airport, all of which implicitly linked the art to the pink logo currently used by the Miami Downtown Development Authority. The exhibition worked to cement the ideological value of Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s work in its local setting as representative of Miami’s transformation to an aspirational global city and art capital.
On Thursday, October 4, 2018, artist Christo gave a well-attended keynote in the exterior lobby of PAMM, the stage placed directly in front of Biscayne Bay. The fanfare with which the artist was received demonstrated the mass appeal of and praise for the couple’s work among contemporary audiences in Miami. Nearly thirty-five years later, Surrounded Islands was figured popularly as a symbolic and iconic turning point for the city. Reflecting these accolades, toward the end of the exhibition, a page of typed text by the artists’ son, Cyril Christo, dated May 1983, read as a poetic ode to Miami and its watery environs: “The solitudinous isles that lay in a fluid wait amidst / A verdant metropolis, shyly beseeching the grandeur of folly / To triumph in the drowsy blooming of a herculean cape.” This elegy captured the romantic, idyllic, and even heroic posturing of Surrounded Islands; the abstract and dramatic wrapping or surrounding formed a spectacular and revelatory mythology regarding art and place. Overall the exhibition emphasized the daunting and elaborate nature of such site-specific art, and contributed to an ongoing narrative of the transformative mythos of contemporary art in the global city. At the same time, however, it also dissociated the public project from any critical relationship to the social and ecological concerns facing Miami, both then and now.
Assistant Professor of Art History, Grinnell College