No Artist Will Make You Want to Travel Quite Like Christo Does
Christo’s work turns ordinary places into art-world destinations. His latest, a surreal barrel sculpture floating on Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, has casual fans and connoisseurs alike flocking to London.
INTERVIEW BY HANS ULRICH OBRIST
PORTRAITS BY MARK COCKSEDGE
August 21, 2018
Generally speaking, there are two ways to travel. The first is to set out without any real intention or itinerary, and throw a proverbial dart at the map. Like a long Dizzy Gillespie solo, this is an exercise in improvisation. The other way is to set out with explicit and specific purpose—a destination. This, conversely, is an exercise in devotion, faith that the moment of arrival will justify the journey, and satiate some kind of hunger. The naturalist goes to Galápagos, the Muslim to Mecca. The aesthete goes to Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
What is it about the duo’s landscape installations and sculptures that inspires people to come in droves, from all corners of the globe, just to see, feel, interact? It’s the tangible qualities, sure, the mastery of scale and context and materials, so large and so visible that the works feel instructional. Then there’s the history. Christo and Jeanne-Claude were famously born on the same day, in 1935, and collaborated on public installations for nearly half a century, until Jeanne-Claude’s death, in 2009.
But the mystique runs deeper. Christo and Jeanne-Claude always documented the planning of their work, offering a singular insight into the ambition (and the gall) required to create large-scale public art. To this day, selling the documentation allows Christo to fund his own projects without being beholden to a benefactor. That any of these works—much less 23 of them, in large cities and ranch towns, from New York to Japan—have come to fruition is a spectacle unto itself, a sort of miracle.
And, hey, who doesn’t want to witness a miracle?
This summer, for the first time ever, Britain is hosting a large-scale sculpture by Christo. Dubbed “The London Mastaba,” this new temporary work represents a return to one of the artist’s early materials: barrels. More than 7,500 of them are used in the project, which stands more than 65 feet tall and weighs some 550 tons, all floating on Hyde Park’s picturesque Serpentine Lake.
In conjunction with the new London installation, the Serpentine Galleries’ art director, Hans Ulrich Obrist, has curated a special exhibition tracing the history of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s fascination with barrels. When Surface invited Obrist to serve as a special guest editor for this issue, it seemed only natural that he interview Christo, a master of creating art worth traveling for.
From the very beginning of your career, you took your art beyond the gallery space. Can you tell us about how this desire to go into the public arena started?
I cannot exactly explain it. But you should understand where I was born, and where I’m coming from, and the way I studied. In 1957 I was visiting my relatives in Prague, after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Suffocated by the doctrine of Russia’s realism and control, I escaped to Austria. I became stateless for 17 years. I was a political refugee with no nation. I was so angry about my nonexistent place in the world—I didn’t belong to anybody.
I escaped speaking only Bulgarian and Russian, not knowing any Western language. I was 21 years old. I had no money to survive [on], only what I earned from washing cars in garages and working in restaurants. I tried to do my art, and basically, I tried to communicate—not only in the art space with galleries and museums, but also with open spaces.
Back in Bulgaria, for three years I had studied different art [at the National Academy of Art], including architecture, decorative art, painting, sculpture, et cetera. During your fourth year, you are supposed to decide what profession to take. I skipped my fourth year. All my life, I’ve not decided what I am. I am not a painter, a sculptor, nor an architect. I try to mix things.
As an art student, I was assigned to go to the countryside, to farms all belonging to the state, to energize the landscape. The Orient Express was passing through at that time, the rail trains going from Paris to Istanbul. The Communist government was eager to demonstrate to Westerners that the landscape was very dynamic. We went and told the ranchers and farmers that they should keep everything very clean and organized. I was talking to farmers and workers, ordinary people not involved with art. All that is part of what I am doing today. I’m still talking to people who have not the slightest idea what art is, who are not interested in art. I enjoy that adventure.
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You moved to Paris and began your collaboration with Jeanne-Claude there in the late fifties. These first exhibitions in Cologne and Paris used barrels and wrapped objects, which are still part of your practice today—including “The London Mastaba” you just made for the Serpentine Lake.
You can see in the little sculptures I made in the late fifties. I was using the readymade, wrapping things in fabric and stacking barrels. The composition is very free—there are no rules. I was doing all this in a maid’s room, on the top floor of a typical boulevard house in Paris. There was no electricity, no water, no toilet. I had an exhibition in Cologne in 1961. The gallery was closed on Sunday and Monday, so Jeanne-Claude and I decided that we should do something outside near the gallery that people could see. The Port Authority gave us permission to do something temporary using the oil barrels and merchandise that was there. We wanted to say that that gallery extends into that open space.
Then I went to Paris and proposed my poetical “Iron Curtain,” [which was] basically stacking barrels horizontally in the small streets in the Left Bank. The Berlin wall was built. The Suez Canal had been nationalized. The British planes and French were bombing, and everything was on the verge of collapse around the world. I was so scared that World War III was starting. We asked for permission to do the work, but we never really got an answer, so we did it anyway, in 1962.
So it evolved from a very close, intimate space to suddenly expanding into the real world.
Tell us about the shift from wrapping cars and smaller objects to entire buildings. How did that epiphany happen?
It was very important for us to wrap a public building, because these buildings belong to the people. We wrote in the proposal that it should be a parliament or prison. We never got permission. We tried to wrap a corporate building in the middle of Times Square in New York, the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome, and later the MoMA building—we never got permission. Then, it was the 50th anniversary of a little museum in the very little town of Bern, Switzerland. The director, Harald Szeemann, thought he might be able to convince the trustees to let us wrap the building. In 1968, we wrapped the Kunsthalle.
Permission seems to be the greatest challenge in getting your ideas to come to life.
The permitting process causes incredible problems. Sometimes it takes many years for a project to happen. The “Wrapped Reichstag” took twenty-five years. “The Gates” [in New York] took twenty-six years. In more than fifty years of creating work, we only realized twenty-three projects. We failed to get permission for forty-seven projects.
This brings me to the soul of our projects. All of our works have two distinct periods: One is the software period, where the work does not exist physically—it’s only in drawings, sketches. [The other period is its realization in physical space.] Everything I produce, I produce with my own hand. You should know that I do not have an assistant. Every original work is done by my own hand, even today. I produce very small sketches, scale models, large objects. These themselves are marketable, they are valuable. I sell these goods, and I’m independent to spend my money on what I want to. This was absolutely the only way to make my work happen. I needed to have [financial] independence. I decided the only way to get it was to sell my work.
Tell us more how you finance your artworks. Have you always been doing it this way?
The relationship between artists and gallery is a very loose one. The gallery has exclusivity with the artist, they keep the artist’s work, they organize exhibitions for the artist. In the traditional way, when the artist needs money, they borrow from the gallery, or the gallery says, ‘First, you need to give [us] more work.’
Nobody was interested in my early works, and inadvertently we became the biggest owners of my works. We made an organization in Basel, and that became our art depot. In the late sixties, around the same time as the “Wrapped Coast,” in Australia, our lawyer from Chicago advised us that we should create an independent corporation. Not a nonprofit corporation, but a corporation created to build our projects, to sell our original works of art, and buy [them] back. It’s the CVJ Corporation, with my initials, Christo Vladimirov Javacheff. That corporation would create a subsidiary each time we did a project around the world.
We were sitting on so many valuable artworks that we started to work with banks. They took collateral, and we rented money. Let me tell you a secret: For ten million in stand-by money, you pay only $150,000 in rent a year—if you don’t touch the money. It gives me the freedom not to undersell the work.
From the beginning you never took commissions?
No, no, no. Nobody commissioned my projects. I commissioned all these projects myself. This is very important to understand: Some projects we designed for a particular place—the “Wrapped Reichstag” was designed for the Reichstag, “The Gates” for Central Park—but some projects are conceived and then we need to find the right place for them. The “Valley Curtain” in Colorado was not designed for that location, nor “The Umbrellas” [in the Japan and outside Los Angeles,] nor the “Running Fence” [in Sonoma and Marin Counties], nor “Wrapped Coast” in the little bay outside Sydney. This is why the work we develop is always in relation to the place. We never do the same thing again. They are all unique. And the works no longer exist! All that creates a lot of interest and anticipation. After fifty years, we have a special public—like groupies. They’re not even art collectors.
Yes, your work attracts enormous numbers of people from all over the world.
We don’t do anything for that. We don’t invite anybody [laughs], because it’s so complicated! One of the biggest troubles of all the permitting processes is that now there are too many people who come to see the work. We try to say that we don’t do any additional promotion so that we’re not responsible—even if everything goes smoothly.
Some 270,000 people turned up in the first five days after “The Floating Piers” debuted in 2016 on Lake Iseo in Italy. Tell us about that project.
We had the idea in 1980, just as we were finishing wrapping the coast of Australia. We tried to extend the fabric to go on the surface of the water, to be able to walk on top of it. Jeanne-Claude and I really wanted to do this. We tried in Rio del la Plata in Argentina—we never got permission. We tried to do it again in Tokyo Bay in Japan—we never got permission. Jeanne-Claude passed away in 2009, and I was so eager to do that project, because it’s something she really wanted to do. I thought, In order to do this, we need calm water. When we lived in Paris, we got to know Italy. We had collectors, dealers, and friends who lived on one of the lakes. This is how we came to Lake Iseo. We decided to connect that little island, Mont Iseo, with the mainland.
Why were people so attracted to walking the water? We are sixty percent water ourselves, and that might be why we have this enormous pleasure when we are close to it. The surface of “The Floating Piers” was not flat—it moved with the waves. It’s very moving to feel that.
And now you’ve returned to the barrels with your latest project, “The London Mastaba” at Serpentine Galleries.
When you stack cylindrical objects, their [hypotenuse] angle is sixty degrees. It was a very natural form, and I had this unstoppable urge to do a mastaba [a Mesopotamian fixed bench outside the house, typically made of stone or earth] with the magic proportions of 2:3:4—the height of the structure two, the length of the sloping sixty degree wall three, and the length of the base four.
I did a smaller mastaba, which is now part of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, then I tried to do a bigger [one] in Texas in the seventies, and later in Abu Dhabi, which we’ve been working on for a long time. We also tried to do a floating mastaba in Lake Michigan in 1967, but that was never realized.
I remember walking the bridge at Serpentine Galleries, where you have that view of the water. I saw it and thought, We can do the Mastaba for Serpentine Lake. We used heavy barrels—sixty kilos each—stacked twenty meters by thirty meters by forty meters, painted blue, red, and mauve on the base, and red and white around the body.
There’s no yellow in it?
No, that is also what’s extraordinary about its relationship to the landscape. In the morning, the western wall is very dark. You cannot anticipate how flamboyant the colors are as the sun moves. I never expected the color change. In the sunset, it becomes like a Byzantine mosaic.