Profile of Christo & Jeanne-Claude, published in Lexus magazine
Published in Lexus magazine
At the age of 66, the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude can reflect on almost half a century of creative endeavour, during which they have covered, wrapped, surrounded or somehow disturbed the environment in countries around the world.
Their most notable work is probably the Wrapped Reichstag, where they covered Germany's former (and future) parliamentary building in a million square feet of aluminium-coated fabric, held in place by 51,000 feet of rope. This project drew more than five million visitors in 1995, astonishing all who saw it and living long in the mind's eye.
Before that had been Running Fence in 1976, comprising 24.5 miles (two million square feet) of nylon fabric held in place by 90 miles of steel cables. In 1983 they surrounded 11 islands in Biscayne Bay, Florida, with 6.5 million square feet of pink woven polypropylene fabric. The Pont Neuf Wrapped ensued in 1985, when the Paris landmark was covered in golden fabric.
The scale of the works is staggering, breathtaking, creating an optical illusion through size and form alone. It is hard to believe that the photographs of the Reichstag are for real, such is the audacity of the shining, billowing precipice of fabric.
But are they ready to sit back on their decades of achievement? By no means. These days, they have two main projects in development. One - The Gates, Project for Central Park, New York City - has been gestating since 1980 and threatens to be the couple's longest-ever piece of work from inception to realisation. The Reichstag currently holds that record, having taken 25 years to deliver.
The other is a mere ten years old. Over the River, Project for the Arkensaw River in Colorado, would place seven miles of fabric over a small river in Colorado, in interrupted stages so that the piece continues for a 40 mile stretch.
As with almost all their work, Over the River has arouses fierce opinions in favour and against. In this case, there are environmental concerns, since, should the project be visited by as many as came to the Reichstag, there could be serious issues of managing the numbers.
This year an environmental impact assessment will be published, at an expense of $300,000 for the artists, examining the potential effect on traffic, wildlife, the air, the water and so on. "We have a good vibration about this," said Christo when we spoke earlier this year. And indeed, the debate itself is crucial. Christo and Jeanne-Claude gain tremendous satisfaction from being so much the centre of attention. "Nobody discusses paintings before they are painted. But they argue and discuss our projects before they exist because they have inherent elements of architecture and urban planning," said Christo.
The Reichstag was the ultimate example of this notoriety, having to be debated by a full session of the German parliament before assent was given. As Christo points out: "In all our projects, we have to rent the space. So for Over the River, we have to get permission from the Federal Government in Washington, the State of Colorado, two counties, 17 government agencies and two private corporations."
Of course, such miles of red tape are daunting, but this has been their daily business through the years. For a project to create a truly lasting impression on its viewers, it makes sense for there to be obstacles. Otherwise we could all go around putting vast sheets of polypropylene over St Paul's Cathedral or Nelson's column.
Few of us would really want to, but then Christo and Jeanne-Claude are quite a rare species. Born on the same day as one another (he in Bulgaria, she in Morocco), they met in Paris when he painted her mother. A son, Cyril, arrived in 1960 and in 1964 they moved to New York, where they remain, when not touring the world lecturing, pestering officials or attending exhibitions of their work.
To raise the finances for their projects, Christo draws pictures of what they will look like when complete. These sell to museums and collectors from around the world and are highly prized. A single example of work from the 50s may fetch anything up to $1 million; contemporary drawings sell for up to $260,000. Often, there is a feeling of an architect's plans to the pieces. In addition to a dramatic view - say the Reichstag with its shimmering covering lit up at night - he will include a swatch of the material and a more formal line drawing of the front elevation, giving a sense of scientifically formulated realism.
The couple are very specific about their terms and conditions. No volunteers can be used in carrying out the projects, they never accept commissions or take on other people's ideas. The never endorse merchandising and always use the same photographer (a German called Wolfgang Volz) to document the finished pieces. In general, each project lasts two weeks, at which time it is taken down and the materials recycled; the site is returned to its previous condition.
At bottom, the art aims to make us look at a landscape, building or object with new eyes. Covering something up creates a thing of beauty, but taking away the covering may release the beauty of the original, the thinking goes. They describe the aesthetic of their work as having an 'urgency' to be seen, together with a tenderness "brought by the fact that it will not last". People who experienced the Reichstag project describe a kind of carnival atmosphere which swept Berliners up and brought them thronging to the building evening after evening.
To return to their other project in progress. The Gates in Central Park has a long and chequered history. First conceived in 1979 at a time when they were plotting major installations in the cities of Paris (Pont Neuf) and Berlin (Reichstag), it was the latest in a series of attempts to work in their home town. In total, they have failed to get six projects off the ground in New York, including a series of wrappings at the Museum of Modern Art, others in Times Square and elsewhere across the city. Only Store Fronts, in 1964, was exhibited in New York.
It seems almost a jinx, but one they are determined to break. They have, however, had an extraordinary stroke of luck. "One good day, somebody brought to our house a gentleman who was very excited about our work," explained Christo. "He was not an art collector, but a wealthy man, a business man. He has a small television, he invited us onto his television." And I'm thinking 'a small television'? Does he mean some tiny cable channel? "And he tried to help us tremendously in 1996 and 1997," continued Christo. "Then, do you know? He became mayor!"
So it turns out that this small television person was multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who of course, in his new role as mayor of New York, would be ideally placed to support the Gates project. In the wake of 9-11, the city is keen to re-establish itself as a visitor location.
"There is a great contrast between the blocks and the vegetation," said Christo. "With the continuously moving fabric in the wind, the saffron and grey of wintertime in Central Park; it's provocative and teasing, you can even touch the fabric."
The city that never sleeps is wide awake and waiting.