Christo: the art of "gentle disturbances"
They are not "wrappers". They do not create "happenings". They refuse corporate partnerships. So what do they do after all? An interview in New York with Christo.
How would you define your art ?
Jeanne-Claude and I are visual artists. Painters work on flat surfaces; sculptors have to go around the space designed by the sculpture; we use space! But the moment we work outside, we move in highly reglemented places and we have to adapt to previous decisions made by urban planners, architects and politicians. As visual artists, we get into that space and create gentle disturbances. We borrow, we do not invent.
"The world can live without our projects. Only we need them."
If I take the example of The Floating Piers, what exactly is the work of art ?
The whole project is the work of art! It always starts with a "software period" where we study the project. People try to help, others try to stop us and I paint! Luckily, we have art collectors all over the world who buy those painting - some of them own more than 200 pieces - and allow us to remain financially independent to develop the project. Then, sometimes after decades of negotiations, we find a midground to get authorization and we move into the "hardware period". We recruit a team of experts, we buy or produce material and then during 14 days, it is the real thing! People can enjoy the experience! It is not a performance. It is completely new each time and it is a whole journey which started with a simple, totally useless urge that Jeanne-Claude and myself had to do this project. No one asked us to do it.
What makes your projects so unique ?
First of all, we never do things twice. We develop projects where people live, so that people get a relation to the scale. They are not abstract. And we design for particular sites: Pont Neuf, Central Park, the Reichstag. Not many artists can say that they defeated Helmut Kohl for example who was opposing the Reichstag for years. The project was refused 3 times before we finally got authorized to go ahead. We also had a long fight against Jacques Chirac in Paris and Giuliani in New York. But when we finally get the authorization, we work with huge teams of lawyers, engineers and experts. I guess we need to be in the stage of incredible adventure with an amazing team of humans !
How did you meet Jeanne-Claude ?
I am half Macedonian and my father was half Czech and half Bulgarian. Freedom came from the communist block in 1957. I was visiting relatives and escaped. I studied in Vienna and ended in Paris. To study art, you need to do 4 years of architecture and then specialize: I still hadn't decided what my specialty is but I know how to draw and paint. I did a portrait for the mother of Jeanne-Claude. At that time, I was selling various things but it was very difficult. We did the barrels rue Visconti in 1962 together and things continued from there very naturally. We went to Australia because we have a collector there. The same applies with Italy, Germany and Japan. I took care of art and she took care of all the organization matters. I really miss her critical remarks, not just artistically speaking but also about how to implement things.
The Floating Piers is your first event without Jeanne-Claude who passed out in 2009.
Jeanne-Claude invented this concept with me many years ago. We almost did it in Tokyo and Argentina. I am glad we didn't because the technology was not good enough for such a project in the nineties. Italy is the only country where we could have done this project: where else in the world do you get authorization to get 80.000 people per day walking on a floating pier without fence, when the lake is 90 meters deep! In 2014, I travelled to Germany to receive a prize and met the President of the lake - who is also the nephew of Nabokov - who supported the project. This was very unusual. We got lucky! It was still a difficult project: we had to install 200 anchors weighing 5,5 tons each, 220.000 floating cubes and 100.000 square meters of fabric. We also had special lighting from America. Everything worked very well. The pier had a very commanding direction that people enjoyed. We will be done removing everything by the end of October.
As an ex illegal migrant, how do you perceive today's discussions on migrants ?
I was exactly like that. I had to pass borders. These were nasty times. World war III was on the way. They were bombing the Suez Canal. I think about this. I remember when we were escaping. We are all together when we escaped but after that, it is everyone for himself. I had my student card to avoid refugee camps. When you end up in one of those camps, they send you where and when they want to. There were always refugees in the world but today is a different time. There are huge amount of communication which trigger bigger scales of movements. Migrants are more educated. They have relatives. This is a very different context.
How did you manage to remain free from agents, corporate sponsors and banks ?
We never made money. The only thing we owned was this building. Banks refused to lend us money, so the owner lent us the necessary amount to buy the building from him in 1973! We live very simply. All the money goes in our projects. It is very risky! That is why we need a network of people who love our work and buy my work. It is a very sustainable model, even when projects such as the Reichstag lasts over 25 years. We copyright and trademark to stop any use of image in the capitalist world. And we rent the place: we rented Central Park for 3 million dollars for example, which guaranteed an absolute right on the place. No filming, no cars,... At Harvard business school, they teach by case: in 2007, there was the case of Christo and Jeanne-Claude! We have a holding company and we create subsidiaries for each project, which allows us to have a local company there. Banks have an interest in art and our projects: we can use my works as collateral! Also do not forget that we always recycle everything: after the "Gates", we sold back 5.000 tons of steel, which is two thirds of the weight of the Eiffel Tower. It is a very normal capitalist arrangement.
What are you working in now ?
We always have projects in parallel. Our "Mastaba" project is in the hands of Mrs Madeleine Albright who has a special company for this kind of activity. We pay her for that. "Over the river" could get a green light at any moment. We have already invested 14 million dollars and obtained the authorization but there is an ongoing legal dispute. We rent the river 87.000$! Our archives will remain. We have documented our works with huge books and thousands of elements: films, fabric, drawings and so on. We are selling the exhibition to structures like the Smithsonian where this archive will stay forever. As you can imagine, the money coming from the sale of these exhibitions helps finance our next project. We never think about our legacy as I always that: "In 500 years, things evolve a lot. Look at Venus of Milo. Look at ruins !".