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Artwork’s Shadows to Be Cast on 2 Continents

Times Staff Writer

To wintertime motorists, the Grapevine can sometimes be as inviting as a drive on a frozen lake bed. In the summer, it can become an obstacle course of overheated cars that never reach the top.

But Christo is coming, and he just might change the Grapevine’s sorry reputation. And he is bringing giant yellow umbrellas.

If all goes according to plan, 1,700 octagonal umbrellas, each 28 feet in diameter, will cascade down both sides of Interstate 5 for 18 miles from Gorman to the bottom of the Grapevine in October, 1991.

At the same time half way around the world, 1,300 blue umbrellas will sprout in rice paddies, a bamboo forest, a riverbed, villages and farmers’ back yards along a 12-mile rural stretch of Japan.

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Christo’s three-week spectacle is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of art lovers on both sides of the Pacific as well as plenty of rubberneckers along the busiest north-south artery in California.

The prospects have already prompted California Highway Patrol officials to begin planning for what they say will be its biggest traffic challenge since the Olympics.

‘Enchanting, Uplifting’

But why 300-pound umbrellas?

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“The umbrella is something extremely familiar to everyone around the world,” the Bulgarian-born artist said. “It’s so enchanting, so uplifting. It has a fabulous connotation. The umbrella is very much linked to the greatness of kings.”

The luminescent umbrellas, Christo predicted, will resemble houses without walls and will convey the image of “nomadic tribes when they build their tents.”

Christo, a slight, bespectacled man with a Continental accent and a disarmingly courteous manner, has been very much linked to controversy in the past. Not content to confine his work to museum walls, Christo has presented--some would say foisted--his huge outdoor artworks in public places where people could not help seeing them.

He shrouded the oldest bridge in Paris in champagne-colored fabric. He gift-wrapped the tiny Florida islands dotting Biscayne Bay in hot pink woven polypropylene. He drew a giant billowing curtain across a valley near Rifle, Colo.

Some local artists apparently envisioned his only other California project, the “Running Fence,” the way Southerners viewed Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Civil War march to the sea. They complained that the fence and its carloads of sightseers would create environmental havoc.

Despite the protest, Christo in 1976 defiantly erected a shimmering cloth fence that stretched across 24 1/2 miles of tawny fields in Marin and Sonoma counties before plunging into the Pacific Ocean.

In the midst of the construction, Christo hid in a eucalyptus grove after mistakeningly believing that the state attorney general wanted to serve him with an injunction to unravel the project.

“Many people think I’m a lunatic to do these projects,” Christo conceded in an interview. But he explained that creating three-dimensional art under the open sky where space is unlimited frees him from the constraints of museums that, he sniffed, were invented only 250 years ago.

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And this time around, it appears his art will be better received.

Christo has been quietly spending 2 1/2 years laying the groundwork for his umbrella project. As head cheerleader, the 53-year-old Christo has flown to Japan 33 times and visited the West Coast on almost as many occasions. He has brought videotapes, slide shows, photographs, books and magazine articles to attest to his sincerity and legitimacy.

“We listen to advice, and we move very cautiously to develop a relationship with the owners of the land,” Christo said.

He used the same strategy to educate wary landowners in Japan and public officials and disbelieving ranchers in California who live in the shadows of the Grapevine’s imposing hills.

“I don’t know anyone wildly ecstatic about it, and some think it’s plain foolish,” said Robert Preston, a general contractor who is letting Christo erect umbrellas on his property in the Tejon Pass. “I fit into the middle ground. I sort of like to see things like this happen.”

‘Excited About It’

“It will be a traffic nightmare, but it will be a thing of absolute beauty. . . . We’re really excited about it,” said Capt. Patrick Harrington, head of the CHP’s legislative unit. He was assigned to the project after the state Legislature thanked the artist in 1987 for picking California for his next international art event.

It took 9,000 miles of traveling by car before Christo selected the two sites for the project he first envisioned in 1984. In both countries, he had searched for a serene valley, unfettered by tourist attractions.

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Christo, who does not use his last name of Javacheff, said he chose California because of its strong link to the Pacific Rim. Wanting sunny weather for the autumn display, he narrowed his site to Southern California and began his search in the summer of 1986 in the San Diego area. But he was disappointed by the urban buildup between San Diego and Los Angeles and headed north.

He found what he was looking for in the Grapevine (named long ago for the wild grapes that appeared there), which he said Japanese visitors will find “mind-boggling.” The contrast between the San Joaquin Valley’s endless horizon at the edge of the Grapevine and the very cramped landscape of Japan will be like a “symphony in two parts,” Christo said.

The artist hopes to deliver the outdoor extravaganza for $10 million to $12 million. Christo’s California project director, Tom Golden, a Sonoma County landmarks commissioner who has worked with the artist since the “Running Fence,” said he thinks the artist could end up spending $15 million.

All the money will come from Christo. As in the past a corporation formed by him and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, will sell hundreds of drawings, collages and plans from his umbrella preparations and past and future projects to collectors, art dealers and museums. Christo has never made a profit on his outdoor art and has never wanted to, said Jeanne-Claude, who handles the couple’s financial dealings. If the money runs out, she said, she obtains a bank loan.

“Christo doesn’t have a house in the Hamptons or Santa Barbara, and I don’t have diamonds,” said Jeanne-Claude Christo, who has lived with her husband for 25 years in a fourth-floor walk-up in a graffiti-marred building in the Soho District of New York City.

‘Most Complicated’ Work

Christo, who said he spends at least 18 hours a day on the umbrella project, called his latest venture--the first undertaken at two sites simultaneously--probably his “most complicated” work.

In California, a battalion of bureaucrats must sign off on the project from Los Angeles and Kern counties, the state Department of Transportation, the state Department of Parks and Recreation, the CHP and other agencies. All have expressed enthusiasm for the project. There also were 42 persons who have title to the desolate property hugging the Grapevine who had to be convinced of the endeavor’s worthiness.

For a year, the biggest holdout was the Tejon Ranch Co., which owns 40% to 50% of the land on the umbrella trail. Golden said the smaller property owners kept telling him that if he got Tejon Ranch’s blessing, the rest would acquiesce.

After Tejon conducted an exhaustive background check on the artist and his larger-than-life works, permission came from its board of directors late last year.

“I must say I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen,” said Dennis McCarthy, Tejon Ranch’s general counsel and senior vice president who noted that the ranch’s cattle probably will enjoy using the umbrellas as scratching posts.

The sales job in Japan proved more daunting.

Simply locating the 437 property holders in the umbrellas’ proposed path required detective work. The Japanese pay no taxes on land, which made it impossible to easily track down owners and the most recent property maps were drawn in the 1920s. What’s more, land ownership is considered a private matter, not the sort of thing an inquisitive foreigner should be asking about.

About every half mile, Christo hired an elderly man to make discreet inquiries. It worked. The artist is confident that he will obtain written permission from the landowners in the province of Ibaraki. Meanwhile, he added, the Japanese government wants to make it a “national project.”

Set Up Camp at Motel

The artist and his entourage set up camp in Gorman’s only motel last September. Christo said the group hiked for weeks selecting the site. Stakes marked each umbrella’s site and, as a precaution against curious cattle, a magnet the size of an aspirin was buried to mark each spot.

Each collapsible nylon umbrella will stand 19 feet, 8 inches tall with a diameter of 28 feet 5 inches. Every base probably will contain 1,500 pounds of sandbags. If the winds reach 50 m.p.h., the umbrellas will be closed.

No one has been selected to manufacture the umbrellas, but companies from Bakersfield, Salina, Kan., Germany and Japan submitted prototypes. The umbrellas were tested for wind worthiness last May in Cheyenne, Wyo., one of the nation’s most blustery spots.

Scientists at Iowa State University are building a scale model to undergo engineering studies. The test site will then shift to the Silicon Valley where one or more life-size prototypes will be subjected to a NASA wind tunnel.

Christo expects that it will take less than a week to position the umbrellas and up to 10 days to dismantle them. On each side of the Pacific, 1,000 people will be hired to install the umbrellas and then serve as caretakers and tour guides. Visitors will be allowed to walk among the umbrellas that are on public property and touch them.

When the show is over, Christo expects to recycle his umbrellas. After the “Running Fence,” he donated the poles to ranchers for cattle guards and the fabric became hay bale covers. The material covering the Paris bridge was given to a U.N. relief fund and served as lining for mud houses in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.


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