I recently wrote “The world’s most eclectic renter,” a story for the Japan Times about the exhibition “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Life=Works=Projects” at 21_21 Design Sight.” Christo had kindly given me an hour and a half of his time to talk about his and Jeanne-Claude’s life work. In a lively conversation that hardly needed my prompting, Christo revealed the complex paths that led to iconic artworks such as the “Wrapped Reichstag” (1971-1995) and “Surrounded Islands, Miami, Florida” (1980-83). If the JT wasn’t a newspaper, there would hardly have been a need for my input as Christo told the story clearly enough on his own. Therefore, here is the first half of the interview, with few of my interruptions to get in the way.
Donald Eubank: What is the origin of your working methods?
Christo: The most important part in my early works is that fabric has a long tradition in the history of art, thousands of years. Artists used fabrics in their works art – of course not real fabric, it was done in bronze marble, wood. Actually, you can even recognize historical styles. For example in medieval sculpture, you have much more angular folds, whereas in Renaissance sculpture of Bernini and Michaelangelo, you have much more rounded folds. The fabric is a huge part of the work of art.
The greatest example of what fabric does in a work of art, is by French sculptor Rodin. Rodin did a version of a figure of Balzac the French novelist. The first version Balzac was totally naked, big belly, skinny legs and many of details. Seeing that figure, Rodin took the fabric cape of Balzac, put it in liquid plaster and shrouded the figure of Balzac that we have now in the Museum of Modern Art in Europe. Basically, he hides the details and highlights the principle proportion of the figure.
Now the wrapping projects, if you are familiar with the Reichstag, it is a typical Victorian building, we have ornaments, decoration, all kinds of decorative parts of the structure. All that was hidden by 100,000 sq.-meters of fabric, so when you see the “Wrapped Reichstag,” you see the principle elements of the building: towers, the proportions of the building. It is like classical sculpture. All the still photos you see, it is not the real thing.
All our projects are like living objects, moving with the wind, as the fabric is a very dynamic material that is extremely forceful in translating the wind or the movement of the water and all that. With the gates and the umbrellas, another important part is that the fabric reveals the nomadic nature of the projects. The transformation in the sites is very immediate because we prepare the project off the site, but the final installation, for example with “The Gates” in New York’s Central Park, took only two hours; the Vatican was under 15 minutes. It is very fresh, not brick by brick, or stone by stone.
The projects live in this nomadic dimension; because of their fragility, they will be gone, never to be seen again, meaning that we will never surround other islands, there will build another gates, never wrap another bridge. They are unique images, unrepeatable. Of course, all our projects create a special public who would like to be present at something that is once-in-a-lifetime, or “Once upon a time.” In the late 20th century and early 21st century, we are continuously surrounded by banal things, repetitious things. Humans like to be present at something that they can say to their grandchildren, “I saw it.”
DE: How do your works differ from the installations that we see in museums and galleries now?
Christo: Traditional sculptural space is entirely decided by artists. Like the sculptures of Calder, they are very large, but all the shapes, Calder decided them; when you walk inside them, the way how you walk, Calder decided: All these forms and how they change. Even contemporary artists who use television and light, and they position one thing there and one thing there, this is the limit of traditional three-dimensional space of graphical sculpture or material sculpture.
The moment you go out on the street and walk on the sidewalk, though, someone else decided where the sidewalk is. You take your car and drive the car, someone decided the roadway: you have a red light and a green light. Actually, we are funneled 24-hours around the clock through highly regulated space designed by urban planners with meetings and jurisdictions. We are not even thinking about how we are controlled by these spaces.
What we do, Jeanne-Claude and myself, we borrow that space and create gentle disturbances for a few days. By borrowing that space, we inherit everything that is inherent in that space and make it part of the art. We didn’t invent the politics of the Reichstag, it was already Die Reichstag; we didn’t invent the ecology of Biscayne Bay, it was Biscayne Bay. Now the difference is that for 14 days in 1995, it was the “Reichstag Wrapped.” My sketches and drawings are about the “Wrapped Reichstag”; the still photos are about the “Wrapped Reichstag”; the films are about the “Wrapped Reichstag.”
I compare it to watching films about Vietnam. There is no blood, and no one is killed in the movie theater. You see images of people dying, but that is only about the Vietnam war. But all our projects have this reality with the real things – not illustrations, the real things: the real wind, the real sun, the real waves, the real surf. That is why these projects are bigger than our own imaginations.
This is also a very important thing: We don’t do commissions. We start the projects with a very simple idea, and during the permitting process, the projects develop their own identity and grandeur because they are so complex that we don’t know what will happen.
All the time with a project, we always try to find out who owns a place. There is not one square meter of the world that is not owned by someone — state, private, all kinds of things. In a very pragmatic way, we need to rent the space. We paid $3 million rent to the city of the New York to unwrap the gates in Central Park for three months. We paid $250,000 to the German nation to rent the Reichstag, not only the Reichstag but 1 km around it. All these spaces, they are extremely complex, with regulations, insurance, security, all kinds of things, because when we rent the place, it becomes our property for that time.
In the case of the Reichstag, when we tried to find out who owns the building, we discovered that the building is owned by 80 million Germans. Fortunately these 80 million Germans are represented by the 670 deputies of the German parliament. And we understand then that the only way to get permission is to have a majority of the parliamentarians supporting the project.
Jeanne-Claude and myself, we spend days and days talking for half an hour to one hour to the deputies of the parliament, and some say “No,” some say “Yes,” some say “I should say ‘Yes,’ but come talk to my constituents to convince the constituents why I should say ‘Yes.’ ”
The principal opponent to the project was the prime minister of the parliament at the time, the chancellor Helmut Kohl. Helmut Kohl did everything possible to defeat the project, changing the approval of the process from the simple signing of a piece of paper to a 70-minute debate in the parliament of the nation televised to 220 million spectators in the European Union. By this resistance to the project, Mr. Kohl elevated the importance of work of art to an unbelievable dimension. We were very gratified, and we defeated Kohl, and 70 members of the conservative party voted for the project.
All that, we didn’t know about back in 1971 when we started the project. This is why we do not do commissions. We like the work of art to build this power that is impossible to predict.
The same thing with the “Over the River” project, which is the first work of art ever to ever have an environmental impact statement. That is a federal law only required for building highways, bridges, airports. $2.3 million. Who paid? We paid. To prepare a study of how the “Over the River” project would affect the area. This is done only for the biggest human endeavors, and this is something that no work of art has ever had. That review is over 2,000 pages.
And this is the soul of our projects, this is the enormous power of our projects.
DE: Is going through this permitting process and discovering what is necessary to take over a piece of property part of the pleasure of doing your projects?
Christo: All our projects have two distinct periods: The software and hardware periods. The software period when the work only exists in drawings, sketches, scale models and the minds of thousands of people who try to help us and minds of the thousand people who try to stop us. Do you know how many people try to stop us? For the “Surrounded Islands” project, petitioners sued us to the federal court. We had 70 lawyers.
For the “Over the River” project, there are people who think the project should not happen. It is a 40-mile project through valleys and towns, and there are people who think that the project will attract too many people and that it will be inconvenient and cause traffic jams. They think that Highway 50 will be so busy that if someone has a heart attack, they won’t be able to get to the hospital. So we say, “OK, we will hire a helicopter for sick people at our own expense.” That is called mitigation.
The software period is before the project is realized, and it is part of the work of art; and the hardware period is when we physically build the work of art; and all that combined is the work of art.
Jeanne-Claude, she’s not with us anymore, but she was always saying that it is like an expedition, like a discovery, like an incredible way to see and marvel in new places and people. For example, with “The Umbrellas, Japan-U.S.A.,” in Ibaraki, we talked to 469 rice farmers who owned the land over 12 miles. The youngest was 60, the oldest was 92. Myeslf and Jeanne-Claude, we drank probably 6,000 cups of green tea talking to them all with our devoted translators over six years.”
DE: How important are the preparatory works?
Christo: They have independent value, you know. First, they are very import to translate what we want to do in the permitting process. When I use collage and photomontage, it is a lot like when an architect uses photographs for backgrounds and incorporating real materials. We often bring these works to all these meetings to explain to the surpervisors and landowners what it is that we would like to do.
Also, they reveal the evolution of these projects which develop over many years. They are unique images as we never do the same thing again. In the sketches, in the early studies, they are much more clumsy – not less precise – but the later ones are much closer to the reality.
These works we sell to museums, collectors, and dealers around the world so we can pay for our own projects with our own money. All the original works are done with my own hand. I don’t have an assistant, every single drawing sketch or scale model is done by myself.