In May of 1983, eleven islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay were surrounded with 6.5 million square feet of floating pink fabric. It was an incredibly vibrant spectacle – green islands, pink fabric, turquoise water, and blue skies – realized by the conceptual and environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The project, Surrounded Islands, is the subject of an exhibition now at the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM).
Born on the same day – June 13, 1935 – Christo and Jeanne-Claude were together as a couple and as collaborators from 1958 until Jeanne-Claude’s death in 2009. Their projects are characteristically large and complex public works, taking years and even decades to be realized. In Miami, Surrounded Islands came together in just over two years, notwithstanding criticism, litigation, and numerous permits from government agencies, all of which Christo and Jeanne-Claude considered to be part of the artwork and which are documented in the exhibition at PAMM.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude visited Miami in December of 1980 at the invitation of Jan van der Marck, founding director of Miami’s Center for the Fine Arts, the predecessor organization of PAMM. On that trip, “Jeanne-Claude thought of surrounding the islands in Biscayne Bay with fabric. We wanted to look at the way people in Miami live, between land and water: the color pink reflected the tropics and Latin culture.”
From November 1982 to April 1983, 6.5 million square feet of pink polypropylene fabric was manufactured in Germany and sewn in Miami into shapes to match the contours of the islands. Simultaneously, in collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers and state and county regulators, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s team removed some 40 tons of refuse from the uninhabited islands and donated works of art worth $100,000 to establish the Biscayne Bay Preservation Fund.
The installation began on May 4, 1983, and took three days with a team of 430 workers. The eleven islands, across seven miles of Biscayne Bay, were wrapped by bright pink fabric extending 200 feet from their shores. Surrounded Islands was a shimmering spectacle for ten days, and a significant moment in Miami’s development as a hub for contemporary art.
The exhibition at PAMM marks the 35th anniversary of Surrounded Islands as well as that of the opening of the Center for the Fine Arts, which later became Miami Art Museum and then Perez Art Museum Miami. The new PAMM, which opened in 2013, happens to overlook Biscayne Bay.
As with all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects, Surrounded Islands was funded entirely through the sale of original works of art such as preparatory sketches and models. Christo must maintain a huge archive; The exhibition at PAMM includes 50 drawings and collages, hundreds of documentary photographs, correspondence with government officials, a large-scale model of Biscayne Bay and its islands, and one of the Styrofoam cubes used to support the floating fabric.
“It’s so much about showing the potential of freeing oneself from pre-existing parameters like, ‘If it doesn’t make money, then why do it?’ If you can free yourself from that kind of mental stoppage, look at what great things can happen!”
Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83 | A Documentary Exhibition is on view at the Perez Art Museum Miami through February 17, 2019.