Wrap Stars 

A conversation with Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

click to enlarge art04_lede_christo_148.jpg

Central Park sprouted thousands of nylon saffron-colored panels billowing from vinyl gates two years ago. Although the gates were a rare spectacle, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude are used to working on such a large scale.

In 1991 they installed 3,100 umbrellas, two stories high in California and Ibaraki, Japan, though they are perhaps best known for wrapping the Reichstag — Germany's parliamentary building — draping the entire structure in silvery polypropylene fabric. Wrapping the Reichstag cost $15 million; the umbrellas were $26 million.

In order to maintain complete control over their work, Christo and Jean-Claude do not accept grants or sponsorships. They spend their own money and pay the hundreds of workers who help install their art.

The sheer scope of their projects means it often takes years to get approval from government agencies and private citizens. Those negotiations often turn city council hearings into impromptu discussions of what counts as art — it's all part of the process. Art commentators have marveled at the innovation such huge undertakings require and their ironic outcomes. (When did people look at the Reichstag building more than when it was covered?) There's an impish quality to transforming such large and familiar public spaces, too. Like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

They are married and live in New York. Christo was born in Bulgaria and Jeanne-Claude grew up in a French military family.

For their next trick, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are planning to suspend seven miles of metallic-colored fabric panels horizontally over 40 miles of the Arkansas River in Colorado. They will discuss their work Jan. 31 at Virginia Commonwealth University's Singleton Center.

Style: Now, of course you guys are married and you work together as partners —

Jeanne-Claude: Wait, wait, hold it, I'm not a guy.

I'm sorry. You both —

Jeanne-Claude: That's better

Christo: Guys! You, young lady, you call [women guys]?

I'm so sorry. How do you both divide the labor?

Jeanne-Claude: We don't divide.

Christo: We don't divide, no. ... Sometimes Jeanne-Claude has idea about something, sometimes I have idea about something, and we discuss things, and we fight and we argue, and it's very complex but very creative process of relations.

Jeanne-Claude: But of course as you know from our Web site there are three things we do not do together. [1. They never fly on the same aircraft, so that if one dies the other can finish the project. 2. Christo never speaks with their tax accountant. 3. Christo does all the drawings and has no assistant.]

Where are you with your project in Colorado right now? Are you still in the permission phase or have you started to —

Christo: Let me explain something. Everything in the world is owned by somebody. There not one square feet in the world do not belong to somebody … In the case of Colorado it's 40 miles of the valley when the project's installed. … To get permission to install "Over the River" project we need to get permission from Federal Government in Washington, D.C., from the state of Colorado, two counties, eleven governmental agencies, two private corporation.

Christo, at one point you said, and this is a quote: "I believe very strongly that 20th-century art is not a single individualistic experience. It very deep political, social economical experience I live right now with everybody here."

Christo: You should understand we need to sell the project to the people who live there and we've got very many public hearings . … You know a very important part to know that all our projects, they unique image, meaning that we never build another gate, we never surround another island, we will never build another Running Fence — they're all formally completely [unique] works —

Jeanne-Claude: And they have no precedent.

Christo: That is the complexity of the permits because all the permitting processes [for architects] … is referred to precedent, you know. … And this is exciting, but is why we like to do this work because the expedition with something we do not know where we're going.

Jeanne-Claude: We don't have any precedent . … It is a totally new image that has never existed before on planet Earth.

There seems to be a theme of East meets West running through some of your pieces. I'm thinking of the Reichstag and The Umbrellas project.

Christo: That is different story [laughs]. East/West of the Reichstag is different than East/West of The Umbrellas. I hope you understand that.

Well, can you expand on that a little?

Jeanne-Claude: The reason Christo was laughing was because many years ago we were preparing The Umbrellas. Japan, USA. And of course we were lecturing everywhere on the West Coast of the United States and in Japan, because this is how we can recruit our workers by talking at the universities. And you know that The Umbrellas is a comparison [of the two richest countries in the world]. Now we were lecturing in Los Angeles, and then came the question and answer, and the first question from an American student was how much will it cost and who pays for it? That same night we flew to Japan and lectured in Tokyo University and the first question was Mr. Christo, please tell us why blue in Japan and yellow in California? Wow, what a difference. Aesthetic concern.

But years before that … Christo … explained that the Reichstag was the only building in the world that was in both East and West because 100 feet of the west façade of the Reichstag was under the Communists' territory, and he said that the relationship between East and West is a big concern, and Christo kept saying East/West, East/West. And the student asked … We know there is a conflict between East and West, but what does the Reichstag have anything to do with Los Angeles and New York? For him [the coasts] was the East/West conflict.

I understand that in order to finance these projects there are no private donors. Christo you sell off collages and images —

Jeanne-Claude: No, not Christo. Christo and Jeanne-Claude sell . … This is how we finance our projects by selling preparatory works. Created by Christo. Sold by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. But we do not sell only preparatory drawings and collages and scale models of any project. We also sell early works of the '50s and '60s, early packages wrapped objects, store fronts. All that we sell. We sell everything we have except our son.

Christo: I can leave it to Jeanne-Claude because of course I am working in the studio. [hangs up]

How do you pick the colors?

Jeanne-Claude: It depends on each project. We always build life-size tests before.

Where do you stage that?

Jeanne-Claude: Well, we rent a place. A ranch or a building if it's building. … We did four life-size tests for "Over the River," and on the last test all the fabric panels were different from each other. They were different type of fabric, they were sewn differently. … if we don't put enough extra fabric in the folds, in the seams, then we would have trampolines. If we put too much extra fabric then we would have balloons.

For The Umbrellas there [were] at least 15 different yellows. … The same with the blue. Different blues ... We could go far away, up the mountain in Japan and see which blue is more beautiful and then by radio ask the contractor "and now wet them," and he would wet them; we would see which one looks best [if it rains]. Then our photographer would take color photographs in the sunshine, in the wet and see which one looks better in black and white, because in those years the newspapers didn't show anything in color.

Well thanks for taking so much time. It's an honor to speak with you.

Jeanne-Claude: Don't say "honor," say "pleasure." It's more important. S

Christo and Jeanne-Claude will speak at VCU's Singleton Center, 922 Park Ave., Wednesday, Jan. 31, at 6:30 p.m. Free.

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