Christo and Jeanne-Claude: World Wrap
Interview by John K. Grande
Christo and Jeanne-Claude were both born on June 13, 1935. They have worked together since their first outdoor temporary work Dockside Packages, Cologne Harbor, 1961. The outdoor art projects they have generated are some of the most recognizable ever seen in the world. Whether urban or rural, their works are entire environments. In 1994 they decided to officially change the artist name Christo into the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude for outdoor environmental projects exclusively. The artists intervene in a selected environment, and in so doing, cause us to perceive that environment in a new way. Among their most notable projects are The Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California (1972-76), Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83, The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Paris, 1975-85, The Umbrellas- Japan - USA (1984-91), Wrapped Reichstag Berlin 1971-95. On January 22nd 2003, Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City gave permission to Christo and Jeanne-Claude to realize their temporary work of art The Gates, Central Park, New York (1979-2005). With 7,500 gates, 4,87 metres high, with widths varying from 1,82 to 5,48 metres, the gates had the appearance of a golden river, appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees. The Gates also highlit the walkways and footpaths one finds in Central Park, New York.
J.G.: I believe you two originally met in Paris?
C.: Yes. In Paris.
J. G.: Christo was actually painting at the time.
J.-C.: Christo was not painting at the time. He was creating his early works - 1958 - which he couldn’t sell. As a result he couldn’t pay his rent. So he found three ways to survive. He was washing cars in garages. He was washing dishes in restaurants. And he was painting some portraits - oil on canvas. He signed his early work with his first name Christo. When he was washing cars in garages and dishes in restaurants or painting portraits that was Mr. Javacheff - his last name. Portraits were signed Javacheff.
J.G..: Early on, you were involved in doing some work in Abu Dhabi...
C.: The Mastaba of Abu Dhabi is a project for the United Arab Emirates which we started in the late 1970s. I was already working with oil barrels in my studio in 1958, sometimes wrapped, and sometimes not wrapped.
J.G.: And this work was less involved with the object and more in the event?
J.-C.: No - an oil barrel is an object!
J.G.: I make reference to that because both of you do not consider your work conceptual.
C.: Absolutely not. We spent $26 million building a work of art called The Umbrellas Japan - USA, completed in 1991. You would never find anybody on Wall St. who would call $26 million a conception.
J.G.: A project like the Umbrellas involves an enormous scale. Do you consider scale a way of communicating emphatically, directly, in an evident way?
C.: Scale as a way of communicating applies to any work of art whether it is a sculpture by Calder or apples by Cézanne. The scale is always a way of communicating. It is most obvious, for instance, in a sculpture called David, by Michelangelo.
J.G.: You did receive some criticism about the effect on the land with The Umbrellas (1984-1991) project or The Surrounded Islands (1980-1983) at Biscayne Bay in Florida....
J.-C.:There was no effect on the land
J.G.: I have read that these umbrellas were actually recycled. Everything involved in the project was recycled.
J.-C.: The materials were recycled, not the umbrellas. The umbrellas were taken apart and the materials were recycled. The aluminum was melted down and went back to being aluminum, tin cans or parts of airplanes. We always recycle our materials. There was no effect on the land.
J.G.: And all you works are up for two weeks.
J.-C.: Usually 2 weeks, but sometimes 3 weeks. It depends. It has happened that it would be longer, as in the 5,600 Cubicmeter Air Package (1968) in Kassel Germany. It remained two months. The Wrapped Coast in Australia in 1969 also remained almost two months, so it depends...
J.G.: Yes... and the after image, the works that people will collect and so on are less important than the integration in a landscape where people have lived and maintained an activity. This is not necessarily pristine landscape in which you work.
C.: We have never worked in pristine landscapes. You are absolutely right. All of our sites, whether they are urban sites or rural sites, because we use both, are always places or sites which have been previously managed by human beings for human beings.
J.G.: Community and social involvement is an extremely important part of your work. In a sense you are educating city councils, governments, and the public about the importance of art as a communicator.
C.: That is an after effect. Our aim is not that at all. Our aim is to create a work of art of joy and beauty which we create for ourselves and our friends exactly as all true artists do. They always create a work of art for themselves first. If it so happens that other people enjoy it, that is a bonus. but that is not the aim. Our aim is to create a work of art of joy and beauty and to create it in total freedom and that is why we pay ourselves for all our projects. We accept no sponsors, no donations.
J.G.: I was going to get to that. Why do you feel that sponsorship in a sense compromises the artist’s message or even intention?
J.-C.: We do not feel that. Any artist who wishes to have sponsors, its fine with us. but it is not fine for us to accept sponsorship. This is total freedom. We are not against sponsors in general for other people. It is only for us.
J.G.: I believe that the images last while the artworks don’t remain. In this sense, do you feel that the imagery is a more powerful communicator than the object.
C.: No. We do not. Our work has to be experienced, lived, touched... People have to feel the air, see the work breathing, living, moving in the wind, changing colours every time of the day. Images, whether they are books, postcards, posters or films do not substitute. They are a souvenir, a record but they do not substitute the real experience, no more than you probably never have made love to a photograph of your girlfriend.
J.G.: Regarding the wrapping of the Reichstag. When you did this work in Berlin did you select it because of its historical context or simply because it was a site in which to work that you found appropriate or beautiful?
J.-C.: That one was chosen more by Christo than by me because Christo was born in Bulgaria and was brought up under a very Communist regime, and the east - west relationship was extremely important for Christo. The only building in the world that was under the jurisdiction of the four Allies after the war: the British, French, American and USSR plus East Germany and West Germany, and the only building that represented the east-west relationship was the Reichstag.
J.G.: Willy Brandt helped to initiate or help get this project moving, didn’t he?
C.: He tried to help, not to initiate. We met him much later. He came to see us in New York in the early 1980s, to tell us not to abandon the project which we had started in 1971 and which we completed in 1995.
J.G.: And you received some criticism from ecological groups about the materials used, and finally that was ironed out, I believe.
J.-C.: I am not aware of that , not that I know of.
J.G.: I wanted to ask whether you believe an artist must stay away from politics.
J.-C.: I believe that artists should do whatever they please.
J.G.: And you make reference to the fact that the works you create are aesthetic decisions. I would like to ask "What is an aesthetic to you?"
C.: There is no definition of aesthetic. When we say we want to create works of art of joy and beauty. Joy and beauty have many many different facets. For instance part of our aesthetic, an important point, is the way we finance our projects in total freedom That is also part of what we call our aesthetic.
J.G.: and the financing is that from preparatory drawings and prints...
C.: ... and early works also, early works from the 1950s and 1960s.
J.G.: I believe that Christo contributed to a publication called KWY in Paris, involving a lot of young artists in Paris?
C.: Mostly Portuguese artists who were living in Paris, with the exception of Jan Voss who was German and myself, who then was stateless - no passport.
J.G.: Are the materials for your projects often donated?
C.: No. Never. when we purchase materials from industry they have to sign a contract that they never would use it for advertising purposes.
J.G.: And are the people who work on your projects volunteers or are they paid?
J.-C.: Everybody who has worked on the projects had been paid, with the exception of my mother, who always works for free, and another exception was in Australia in 1969, eleven architecture students worked and refused to be paid. Four of them have since become artists instead of architects and one of them, Imants Tiller, is now today one of the best known Australian artists.
J.G.: The Gates, Project for Centra Parkl was one of the most popular events in today`s arts scene… How do you perceive the event in retrospect? Did you achieve what you intended?
J.-C.: We do not make `events`. We create works of art. Because we never do the same work of art twice, we discover the reality to be something not foreseen. For all our projects, once we see the work of art completed, it always exceeds our expectations.
1. Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California 1972-1976
5.5 meters (18 feet) high
39.4 km (24 1/2 miles) long
Copyright Christo 1976
2. Christo and Jeanne-Claude
The Umbrellas, Japan-US (photo avec parapluies bleu) 1984-1991 Ibaraki, Japan Site
3. Christo and Jeanne-Claude
The Umbrellas, Japan-USA(photo avec parapluies jaune)
Photo: Wolfgang Volz
4. Christo and Jeanne-Claude
The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Paris, 1975-1985
40,000 sq. metres (440,000 sq. ft) of woven polyamide fabric & 13, 000 meters (49, 900 ft) of rope
Copyright: Christo 1985
Photo Wolfgang Volz
5. Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-1983
Copyright: Christo 1983
Photo: Wolfgang Volz
6. Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-1995
100,000 sq. meters of polypropylene fabric (1,076,000 sq.ft)& 15,600 meters (51,181 ft.) of rope
Copyright Christo 1995
Photo: Wolfganag Volz