Inspiration from Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Valley Curtain


Deep, loose sand made every step a struggle, like walking on the beach where the water never reaches. But there was no ocean for frolicking……. no trees, no rocks, no shade, just dunes stretching out to the horizon. I was hot, tired, my calves were screaming for me to stop, and the African sun beat down on me as I carried a heavy load of metal poles. We were building a 9 foot tall, 600 meter long curtain in the Kalahari desert. After pounding poles into the ground, reinforcing every fifth with buried railroad ties, we strung cable the length of the ‘V’ shaped site.

Once the curtain (or curtains, should I say—I think there were at least six, a 100 meters each) was unrolled, tying it to the bottom cable was relatively easy. What was not so easy was tying it to the top cable. For such thin woven plastic, it was surprisingly heavy to lift. Hours were spent standing on the roof of a Land Rover, hauling the curtain up to the nine foot high cable, supporting the weight with my arms while I tied the tie, and repeating the process every three feet.

It took twenty men (and me, the only woman) twelve exhausting hours to build the ‘boma’, as it is called in Africa. Invisible wind came across the desert, bringing the curtain alive as it rippled and blew, now taught and now loose again. The scale was monumental, a line of fluttering fabric disappearing into the distance.

It looked like a Christo and Jeanne-Claude creation.

Just as drawing a single line across paper divides the page in two, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s curtains, fences, and other sculptures changes the landscape. In life, as in art, this can be a useful tool.
Unlike Valley Curtain or Running Fence or The Gates, our sculpture was utilitarian. We were catching antelope, wildebeest to be exact, and the curtain was our trap.

Covering, surrounding, dividing. They seem like strange activities for Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the husband and wife artist team, to emphasize the aesthetics of a locale. Yet, these additions cause us to see things in a new way….to see more, to see the ephemeral, like the wind in the desert. It also makes us see less. A grand space can be made to seem small with an obstruction. Even a thin wall made of a plastic fabric can act as a barricade.

That is the secret to our boma capture. Wildebeest, 500 pounds of muscle, horns, and speed, can be caught with the flimsiest of fences. The plastic curtains would not contain them except that antelope, big or small, will not challenge a visual barrier, no matter how thin. If they cannot see through it, over it, or around it, to them it is as solid as concrete. The curtain acts as an impenetrable fence that funnels the herd onto a waiting truck without a hand being laid on them. (Do not try this method with lions.)

The contrast of man-made woven plastic in a pristine setting gives the impression of people in conflict with the natural world, like a plastic bag discarded after a picnic. However, Christo and Jeanne-Claude inform their art with environmental considerations. They take pride in returning the site to its original state. Leave only footprints, take only pictures (and a few wildebeest**).

** The wildebeest were moved to another park for conservation reasons.