We Say It's Art. But What About Ewe?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, June 1999

We Say It's Art. But What About Ewe?
Two acclaimed landscape artists face their touchiest critics ever

For more than 35 years, art fans have thrilled to the monumental exhibits staged by the renowned fabric artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude—installations such as Running Fence, the 25-mile-long nylon fence that briefly stretched from California's Napa Valley to Bodega Bay in 1976. Amid the acclaim, however, critics have never ceased debating the issue of whether these projects, which typically involve draping exotic fabrics over large geographic or architectural features, are worth the minor damage they inflict on the landscape and the danger they sometimes pose to people (a worker and a spectator were killed by mishaps connected with one of the artists' structures in 1991). "On a visual level it's spectacular," says John Beardsley, author of Earthworks and Beyond. "But though their work is temporary, it has raised both environmental and safety concerns."

Torpedo the Dams?

Ever since Bruce Barcott reported here on the growing movement to breach some of the nation's oldest dams ("Blow-Up," February), we've been monitoring the debate surrounding this incendiary issue with interest. A significant protest was registered last April, when the conservation group American Rivers issued its annual Most Endangered Rivers Report, citing the Snake as the most-threatened waterway in America because of its dwindling salmon populations. That came directly on the heels of the National Marine Fisheries Service's decision in March to protect nine varieties of northwestern salmon and steelhead under the Endangered Species Act—an initiative that will require local industries (and by extension, consumers) to spend millions of dollars in order to reduce pollution levels. While many environmentalists argue that both events do nothing to directly aid the beleaguered salmon, the dual listings may nudge the Army Corps of Engineers into releasing a long-anticipated (and potentially radical) recommendation for breaching the four dams on the lower Snake that block salmon migration. "The report is expected in December," says Katherine Ransel, director of the Seattle office of American Rivers. "The big hope is that it will help return the river to a more natural state." —ANDREW TILIN, NATE HOOGEVEEN, KIMBERLY LISAGOR, AND MARY CATHERINE O'CONNOR

If current affairs offer any gauge, the couple's next project will hardly be immune to these objections. Over the River, a two-week exhibition scheduled for the summer of 2003, will involve suspending a five-mile-long ribbon of synthetic fabric above the Arkansas River between Salida and Cañon City, Colorado. The complex preparations will entail conducting wind-tunnel tests in Canada and creating a cat's cradle of carabiners, bolts, and cables to which the canopy will be anchored. But before the hardware can even get off the ground, the artists must first pass muster with some of the toughest critics they'll ever encounter—a local herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

At issue is the question of how the 60-member herd, whose numbers have plunged 25 percent since 1993 for reasons that still perplex biologists, will respond to the throngs that come to install and view the project. "Often when sheep react to people, they just stand and stare," explains Margaret Wild, a researcher for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "But some scientists believe that they're actually burning up inside: really scared, really stressed."

To test this theory, last October the division bundled three ewes into a helicopter, then implanted them with remote-signal heart-rate monitors. As the summer rafting season hits full swing this month with some 745 boaters on the river each day, the researchers are about to get their first glimpse of how wacked-out the bighorns become in the presence of crowds. If the ewes' monitors register high anxiety every time a rafter cozies up to them, it could put the kibosh on the entire Christo project—a prospect that the artists, who view such controversy as an integral part of their work,greet with philosophical bemusement. "The opposition always tries to stop us," says Jeanne-Claude. "But if anybody threw a net from a helicopter on me, I'm sure I would have a heart attack right then." —MAUREEN ZENT

They Bombed in Alberta

"Sometimes i think we should take the president of alberta energy Company hostage, tie him up...and then slit his throat." That's Canadian fundamentalist preacher and accused ecoterrorist Wiebo Ludwig, expressing a response to his belief that the birth defects and miscarriages plaguing his family are caused by 2,400 sour gas wells that Alberta Energy has drilled near his farm. The remark, made to Outside contributing editor Mark Levine and quoted in our pages late last year ("The Souring of the Good Reverend's Nature," December 1998), was cited by Alberta's Crown Counsel as the chief justification for denying bail to Ludwig, who was jailed on January 15 on nine charges of possessing explosives and conspiring to destroy Alberta Energy property. Alarmed by this use of his reporting, Levine provided the defense with an affidavit stating that "inflammatory speech should not be substituted for material evidence," and the judge in the case released Ludwig on February 19. The reverend rejects all charges connected with the destruction of two Alberta Energy wells (one was burned, the other ravaged by fire), while coyly refusing to confirm or deny accusations of vandalism. His troubles, however, aren't over yet. First, his minivan was destroyed by a mysterious explosion on April 19. And second, there's the case itself: If the court finds sufficient evidence to proceed to trial later this year, Ludwig faces a battle that could put him behind bars for life. "It's going to be a fight," he promises. "They never caught me doing anything." —ANDREW TILIN

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