The Miami of the early 1980s grappled with debt, a Cuban refugee crisis, cocaine trafficking and violent shootouts. It was a “Paradise Lost,” as a 1981 Time magazine cover story dubbed the city. It was amid this citywide strife that the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude came to South Florida with a bizarre proposal: to dress 11 tiny islands dotting Biscayne Bay in skirts of hot-pink fabric.
The $3.1 million project, titled “Surrounded Islands,” unfolded 35 years ago this month in breathtaking splendor: 6.5 million square feet of fabric, matching the color of dawn breaking over Biscayne Bay, ringed each island like massive lily pads. It was a display of epic ambition, assembled and self-funded by Christo and Jeanne-Claude between 1980 and 1983, and installed by a 430-person crew. The project drew thousands of spectators to Miami’s bridges and causeways to witness the spectacle.
Miami seemed to be reborn in that moment, argues the Perez Art Museum Miami, which is commemorating the feat in its major fall exhibit “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83: A Documentary Exhibition,” opening Oct. 4. It’s the first time the display has shown in the United States. It was adapted from an exhibit that traveled through Europe between 1984 and 1991.
The beauty of “Surrounded Islands” — yards and yards of pink fabric framing the island’s green vegetation and twinkling blue bay — inspired a generation of artists, raising Miami’s international art profile enough to attract art fairs such as Art Basel, curator Rene Morales says.
“The scale was so tremendous. It really put Miami on the map, and inserted Miami into the consciousness throughout the world,” Morales says.
“Surrounding Islands” and the Perez Art Museum are historically linked, Morales says. Jan van der Marck, founding director of Center for the Fine Arts (PAMM’s predecessor), convinced Christo to work on “Surrounded Islands” in Miami. The show marches chronologically through four sections, revisiting the project’s lengthy saga in 50 early drawings and collages, along with photos and film that capture the government obstacles, installation and dismantling of the floating fabric. The centerpiece is a 42-foot-long scale model of the “Surrounded Islands.”
“The aim of the show is to capture the same sense of buildup, suspense and climax that is synonymous with the ‘Surrounded Islands’ story,” Morales says.
“Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83: A Documentary Exhibition” will open Thursday, Oct. 4, at Perez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd. The show will close Feb. 17. Call 305-375-3000 or go to PAMM.org.
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