The Story Behind Miami's Most Significant Art Installation

By Tom Austin | September 26, 2018 | Culture

In the 1970s a couple of artists vacationing in South Beach hatched a crazy plan, a plan that would eventually become one of the most significant art installations of all time—and the basis for the Miami art scene as we know it today.

surrounded-islands.jpgThe 35th anniversary of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “Surrounded Islands” will be commemorated with a special exhibition at PAMM.

The contemporary era of Miami, a ballyhooed stomping ground for art, design and jet-set high jinks, began with the two-week-long global media sensation that was 1983’s “Surrounded Islands,” the Art Basel of its day. After three years of work, Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude unveiled “Surrounded Islands”—a 7-mile-long string of enormous pink water lilies in Biscayne Bay, spanning the Venetian Causeway to Broad Causeway—on May 7, 1983. The project incorporated 11 islands surrounded by 6.5 million square feet of floating pink polypropylene fabric; each island had 200 feet of fabric jutting out into the water. It was a nervy and profoundly ambitious installation, an only-in-Miami phenomenon that changed the city forever.

This Oct. 4, the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) will debut Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83, A Documentary Exhibition, commemorating the 35th anniversary of the project. For PAMM curator Rene Morales, the Surrounded Islands exhibition is a “unique time capsule, a look back at Miami when it was on the verge of the cultural awakening that eventually led to Art Basel,” he says. “Christo also fueled the evolution of South Beach, which was kind of a dicey area in the early ’80s. He had his friends and collectors, including sophisticated Europeans, stay in little funky hotels on Ocean Drive. They were all captivated by South Beach.”

christos.jpgChristo’s preparatory collage.

Christo will be attending his opening at PAMM and making his first visit to Art Basel this December. On both visits, he’ll be giving talks about “Surrounded Islands” on the museum’s terrace overlooking Biscayne Bay, the same waters that once served as his muse. On the phone from his New York studio, Christo contemplated his most painterly, enduring and aptly enough—this being Miami—famous effort. Since the early 1980s, the Surrounded Islands exhibition has traveled to museums in such countries as Japan, Belgium, Switzerland and France; finally, the show comes to rest in Miami, where it all began.

“In the 1970s, when we first visited Miami, we were always driving back and forth across the causeways,” Christo remembers. “That’s when the idea came to Jeanne-Claude to surround the lush uninhabited islands we saw in Biscayne Bay with fabric, create a presence that would be visible for miles. We wanted to make something that reflected our vision of this strange American city, perched between the ocean and the dense vegetation of the Everglades. The humid air in Miami can be so thick and hazy, and we decided to use a rich and bright shade of pink, a color that would also reflect the tropics and Latin culture.”

Christo doesn’t accept grants or public funding and pays for his projects by selling preparatory drawings and collages, but the approval process for permits—involving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Miami-Dade County Commission—was still consuming. For Christo, bureaucratic struggles are just another part of the “energy” involved in his projects. The endless meetings were often filmed by the Maysles brothers (known for Grey Gardens with Edie Beale) for the documentary Islands, which will be screened during the PAMM exhibition.

surrounded-islands-2.jpgA sketch for “Surrounded Islands” (1983, pencil).

Christo, whose other projects include wrapping Berlin’s Reichstag and a daunting 24-mile-long fabric fence in California, had his share of technical challenges in Miami. “To make fabric that would stay pink under the hot sun was difficult,” he recalls. “At the downtown Miami-Dade Public Library, which has some of the archival materials from ‘Surrounded Islands’ in its Vasari Project collection, we’d test different fabrics on the roof in buckets of seawater; the pink fabric would often bleach white from the sun in a day or two.

“Every project is a unique expedition, a moment that will never happen again,” Christo adds. “The Miami of the early 1980s was so liberating for us. We used a factory in Hialeah for production—at one point we had 430 paid workers—and we loved the culture of the Latinos and Haitians who helped with ‘Surrounded Islands.’ Everyone stayed at the Leslie Hotel on Ocean Drive; South Beach was new then, so much more chic than now. In the evenings, we all went to the Carlyle hotel, which was the only real social center. The Miami of 1983 was so much smaller, so different from the Miami of Art Basel, where there’s so much of everything. ‘Surrounded Islands’ would not have the same impact today, especially if it was done during Art Basel.” Oct. 4-Feb. 17, 2019, Pérez Art Museum Miami, pamm.org

Project Pink

6.5 MILLION: Total square feet of fabric used to wrap the “Surrounded Islands”
7: Miles that the installation spread over, from the Venetian Causeway to Broad Causeway
200: Feet of fabric stretching from the shoreline of each island out into the bay
40: Tons of garbage, including tires, mattresses and an abandoned boat, that were cleared from the islands
15: Width in feet of the sewing machines made in Germany to patch together the fabric



Photography by: "SURROUNDED ISLANDS" AERIAL PHOTO BY WOLFGANG VOLZ; "SURROUNDED ISLANDS" SKETCH PHOTO BY EEVA-INKERI; CHRISTO SKETCHING PHOTO BY WOLFGANG VOZ; ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF PÉREZ ART MUSEUM MIAMI