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U.S.: After Reichstag, Bulgarian-Born Christo Seeks Broader Public Canvas

  • Nikola Krastev

The art of Christo (Christo Javacheff), the Bulgarian-born artist, is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., until this summer. Christo, well known internationally for his "wrapping" technique using giant swatches of fabric, is also heavily involved in planning large-scale projects envisioned for New York City's Central Park and for a river in Colorado. The 66-year-old Christo and his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, recently spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev about their work and their need for expression on a grand scale.

New York, 15 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The wrapping in fabric of the German parliament building in Berlin, the Reichstag, in the summer of 1995 is considered by many to be the culmination of the career of the artist known as Christo.

But Christo and his wife and lifelong collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, refuse to be defined by just one exhibition. They have two more epic projects on the drawing board, and much of their pre-Reichstag work, dating back to the 1960s, is on display at a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In an interview with RFE/RL, both artists talked of their desire to mount a large-scale project in New York City, their longtime home. Christo, who fled communist Bulgaria in 1956, touched on the connections between his art and the sense of being a displaced person.

"You can find that all our projects have this eerie quality. They are not sturdy. They are not heavy. They are not grounded. They are very nomadic, like nomadic tribes. They are very light. They are very fragile. They are passing, and they are gone. This is the part of what we feel, and this is what we like to do. Our work[s] of art have dimension[s] that other works of art do not have. That is a very important esthetical quality: to have work that carries this kind of hovering over the places and [that] have a personal inspiration -- very private, not related to anything. We don't like to translate anything because all our projects [have come from] very private inspiration."

The sight of the Reichstag wrapped in glittering silver fabric focused the world's attention on Christo seven years ago. This was in part due to the political symbolism of his act, signifying as it did the re-emergence of a strong and united post-Cold War Germany. But Jeanne-Claude says they have discovered that the fame they acquired over the "Wrapped Reichstag" has come to haunt them in their quest to mount major works in New York and Colorado.

"In the year 2002, in both places -- in Colorado and in New York -- Christo and I have to suffer from the fact that we did wrap the Reichstag in Berlin in 1995. In Colorado and in New York, they tell us: 'We do not want 5 million visitors in 14 days, as you had in Berlin.' And we have to live with that. Now, in Colorado, they will never have 5 million [visitors] because even the entire population of the state of Colorado is much smaller than that. In New York today, we hope, it will no longer be an objection because today, unfortunately, New York needs visitors."

Although its the most famous of Christo's projects, the "Wrapped Reichstag" is not his largest, at least in terms of materials used. That record belongs to "Surrounded Islands" in 1983, which involved floating approximately 604,000 square meters of bright pink woven polypropylene fabric on the water around 11 islands in Miami's Biscayne Bay.

Christo says another of his projects -- "Running Fence" in California in 1976 -- used three times as much material as was needed for the Reichstag.

Although it is Christo who creates the drawings, the sketches, and the compositions, Jeanne-Claude organizes the elaborate process through which a project is carried out. Sometimes it involves coordination between a number of independent contractors and hundreds of workers.

In the preface to a new book on their creative partnership, author Burt Chernow describes it as a "fusion of their prodigious gifts -- his drawings and her ability to draw things together."

Christo says their work is, first and most of all, about freedom.

"All these projects are about freedom, meaning that these projects exist because artists like to have them. [It is] not because some president of the republic or a mayor of the city, some committee or some congressman or corporate executive [wants them]. That absolute relation to the freedom is essential. Nobody can buy these projects. Nobody can own these projects. Nobody can charge tickets for these projects. Even we do not own ourselves when [the projects] are [displayed] for 14 days. This is why they should go. Because the freedom is [the] enemy of possession."

The plan to erect shimmering golden fabric over pathways in Manhattan's Central Park has been pending since 1979. Known as "The Gates," the fabric will follow the edges of the walkways and hang perpendicular to the selected footpaths of Central Park.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude say the exhibit would last 14 days and, when completed, Central Park would appear from above and from nearby skyscrapers as if there were a golden river running through it.

The "Over the River" project planned for the Arkansas River in Colorado calls for the suspension of a succession of fabric panels horizontally, high above the water. The fabric -- some 11 kilometers of it -- would be attached to steel cables with hooks.

Both projects are in advanced stages from the artists' point of view, but the necessary permits have not yet been obtained. Christo says getting such permissions -- which sometimes involves several city or state agencies -- is usually the most time-consuming part of each project.

Asked whether he ever plans to mount a display in Eastern Europe, where he is well-known but has never worked, Christo says it will only be possible if he has the necessary financial backing. One key reason for his big displays taking place primarily in the West is that he has found more willing supporters there.

"When people tell [me]: 'I love your work,' [I reply] -- Do you really love my work? How much of my work [do] you have? Drawings, sketches, packages? Because if we don't sell our works, we cannot pay for our projects. They cost millions of dollars. [They] are not coming from the industry, from the factory, from the grants or foundations. They are coming from our own money, by selling the preparatory drawings."

Jeanne-Claude tells RFE/RL that the idea for a project in Eastern Europe is not inconceivable: "At the present time, we have not had yet an idea come out of our hearts and our heads for those countries [in Europe] that were formerly communist. We're only 66 years old, and we don't know what the future holds. Maybe someday we will want to do something in South America where we['ve] never had an idea for it, or for Africa, where we['ve] never had an idea, or for the countries that used to be behind the Iron Curtain -- not yet an idea but may be it will come."

Christo and Jeanne-Claude say that, even under the most favorable conditions, "The Gates" or "Over the River" won't be realized until the summer of 2004, at the earliest.

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