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Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Reichstag, 1995. © Wolfgang Volz
You can imagine a young Christo not quite getting Christmas. While other children excitedly unwrapped their presents, Christo would be covering the Christmas tree in clingfilm, working out how many rolls he would need to entirely envelope the tree’s form. In his hands wrapping becomes an art form, and through his joyful endeavor, he forces us to see the world with fresh eyes. No object, fountain, building is beyond him, and when he sets his mind to do it, it gets done.
Anyone who has the idea to wrap Berlin’s Reichstag—one of the most controversial and historically complex buildings in the world—would quickly dismiss the idea as being nothing short of absurd. An impossible, fanciful dream. After 24 years of relentless lobbying Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, finally saw the creased fabric of Wrapped Reichstag, flapping on a breezy Berlin morning in 1995. Using more than 200 workmen, the artist couple had funded the $15.3 million project entirely themselves—without any form of sponsorship. This work, one of the most monumental and ambitious art projects ever attempted, was of huge cultural significance, marking the ending of a period of world history and the beginning of another.
After two weeks the aluminium fabric covering the Reichstag was folded up and taken away, part of its beauty was its impermanence and temporality. Typically, none of Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s artworks last longer than a couple of weeks. They disappear as if they were never there. All that is left are Christo’s art prints for sale that are instrumental in raising funds for the projects as well as serving as beautiful commemorations of the artworks. But more than that these art prints are an astonishing connection between the Bulgarian artist’s grand designs, and his first rush of inspiration. For every project that sees the light of day around ten never make it, due to lack of permission, finance or other considerations. Christo first began wrapping objects in the 1950s, before he had the resources to undertake his vast environmental projects. He has always been fascinated by the transformative effect transparent plastic can have on an everyday object.
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Christo is over 80 years old but he shows no signs of slowing down, if anything he seems more keen on finishing his long-cherished projects before time runs out. Christo is an immigrant from post-war communist Bulgaria who escaped to the West in 1957. Having spent a few years in Paris, he and Jeanne-Claude moved to New York in 1964, where he began working with derelict buildings, layering their often glass facades with paper and fabric. Around this time he began experimenting with show windows and full-sized shopfronts. These were not just meditations on spatiality, but on that sense of suspense—that moment before all is suddenly revealed.
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As Christo freely admits, none of his projects would have been possible without Jeanne-Claude, his lifelong partner and collaborator who died in 2009. Her death was hugely traumatic for Christo, and with her passing he lost the organizational drive behind many of their most famous projects. Famously, they would never catch the same plane together, to ensure that if an accident did ever occur, the project “would survive even if one of us didn’t.”
The two artists met in Paris in 1958 and were intrigued to discover that they had both been born on exactly the same day. Although she was engaged to another, she became pregnant with Christo’s child. Despite marrying her betrothed, Philippe Planchon, soon after the honeymoon she left him for Christo. From that day on the two artists were inseparable. Their shared dream relentlessly and patiently pursued.
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Christo the Humorist
Christo prides himself on being non-political, he has “no time to think about what is wrong. I like to do my gratuitous, absolutely not necessary, irrational and useless works of art.” But more than anything his works are a gift to the people who “in reality have nothing to do with the art world. Many people have never been probably in a museum.”
Although he likes to emphasize the aesthetic value of his projects, their impact can have far-reaching political reverberations or in some cases provoke a total reevaluation of art’s boundaries. 2016’s The Floating Piers, a vast pathway that allowed people to walk across Lake Iseo, in Italy, altered how we perceive a fixed permanent art object.
Sometimes it is easy to forget the humor and joy in Christo’s work. Wrapped Snoopy House, his beautifully schematic drawing pays homage to the comic strip Peanuts. In 1978, Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz depicted Snoopy’s dog kennel wrapped in typical Christo style. 25 years later Christo repaid this honor by presenting an actual wrapped dog kennel to the Charles M. Schulz Museum in California.
The comic artist was in fact very good friends with the artists, and had been instrumental in persuading 56 ranchers and landowners to accept Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s legendary Running Fence project. Created in 1976 the artwork was an astounding piece of engineering, featuring a vast billowing white ribbon emerging out of the Pacific Ocean and into the hills of California.
Christo’s lithograph Wrapped Fountain combines a visual imagining of the project alongside more technical drawings that highlight the complexity of the fountain’s architecture. Resembling a shimmering ball gown, Wrapped Fountain is both sensual and austere, elegantly poised in a baking hot Barcelona evening.
Although this project has never been realized, the exciting news is that his project to build the Mastaba in Abu Dhabi has been given the green light. 40 years in the making this enormous edifice of stacked barrels will—alongside their limited edition prints—prove to be their only permanent work. A monumental legacy for Christo and his great love Jeanne-Claude to leave behind.