The Bellwether in Biscayne Bay: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s ‘Surrounded Islands’

With Art Basel upon us, we look back at the floating pink art project that changed Miami forever.
In the spring of 1983, as the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude were preparing to frame eleven man-made barrier islands in Biscayne Bay in 6.5 million square feet of bright pink floating fabric, one question that people started asking was, “What about the manatees?”

Now 82, and without Jeanne-Claude (who passed away in 2009), Christo explained to Standard Culture that the answer was simple: “In practice, the Florida manatee prefer to stay under the pink fabric, and by staying under the pink fabric, the manatee develop mating instincts.” 

The artists, of course, had planned for everything. Over two years, they negotiated with the city, backed up by a team of attorneys, marine biologists, ornithologists, mammal experts, engineers, and builders. But Miami, as cities do, suddenly began to have second thoughts. “Who were these strange European artists, anyway? And what exactly did they think they were doing in Miami?” The Europeans, of course, were the fiercely determined husband-and-wife art duo creating massive interventions in the landscape using the environment as a canvas.

Christo during the installation of Surrounded Islands, 1983. Getty images. 

Lawsuits were filed. Everyone sued everyone. Hearings were held. Ultimately, the artists’ methodical preparation paid off, and the herculean installation commenced on boats and on land. When Miami at last laid eyes on Surrounded Islands on May 7th, 1983, a funny thing happened: the city fell in love with the vision floated upon it by the artists. Miamians surrendered to the sheer sensory joy of the irrational spectacle, and in turn, came to see their city in a whole new light.
Top: Workers installing Surrounded Islands, 1983. Getty images. Bottom: Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Surrounded Islands, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83, Photo: Wolfgang Volz, ©1983 Christo.

Now 35 years later, Surrounded Islands marks a turning point in the cultural identity of Miami, the first manifestation of the international art destination that the city has become. Through a combination of brute force, obsessive engineering, and bureaucratic balls, Christo and 
Jeanne-Claude pulled off yet another remarkable feat in the name of art for art’s sake, and in the process, changed Miami's image of itself, changed the world’s relationship to Miami, and also, changed individual Miamian’s lives. 

One such individual was Carlos Betancourt, a teenage member of the work crew tasked with checking in other workers at the staging area. To this day, Betancourt speaks of the experience reverentially, saying, “There was a huge excitement from everybody involved. I was very impressed by the monumentality of the project and the realization that it was actually going to be done.” The experience set Betancourt on the path to becoming an artist himself. He would go on to create one of the city’s first artist collectives, Imperfect Utopia, and he still lives and works in Miami today. “Christo’s Surrounded Islands emphasized—demonstrated in a large mainstream, art world way—that this was a very special place from which to create artwork,” he explained.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83 Photo: Wolfgang Volz, ©1983 Christo 

The Miami-based contemporary art gallerist Nina Johnson goes further: “Whatever you think of Miami I think is in some way influenced by Christo, whether it’s direct or indirect. The image that the work created speaks a lot to what has become recognizable as ‘Miami.’ Those islands helped define the architectural vernacular of the city and the city’s ability to put a high value on art in the public space.”

The project still looms large in Miami’s collective consciousness and in the people who live here. As one South Florida native explained, “My dad took my mom on a helicopter date to see those islands. I probably wouldn't exist without them. I think they really won my mom over.”

So, it wasn’t just the manatees. It was the whole city. 


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