The world’s most eclectic renter

by Donald Eubank

“When you go out on the street and walk on the sidewalk, someone has decided where the sidewalk is. You take your car and drive the car; someone decided the roadway — you have a red light and a green light. Actually, we are funneled 24-hours around the clock through highly regulated spaces designed by urban planners. We don’t even think about how we are controlled by these spaces,” muses the artist Christo at a recent interview at 21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo’s Midtown. “What we do, Jeanne-Claude and myself, we borrow that space and create gentle disturbances for a few days.”

Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude have worked together on some of the world’s most high-profile and unusual public art works since the 1970s. In 1983, the two surrounded the shores of 11 islands in Biscayne Bay, Florida, with bright pink polypropylene. In Berlin in 1995, they wrapped the Reichstag, the home of the German parliament, in billowing white fabric. Most recently, they placed 7,503 orange “gates” in New York’s Central Park for 16 days. Such projects are designed to refresh people’s assumptions about these spaces.

“If you are familiar with the Reichstag, it is a typical Victorian building. It has ornaments, decoration, all kinds of decorative parts of the structure,” says Christo. “All that was hidden by 100,000 sq.-meters of fabric, so when you see the ‘Wrapped Reichstag,’ you only see the principle elements of the building: its towers, its proportions. . . . All our projects are like this — living objects, moving with the wind.”

Sadly, Jeanne-Claude, who the couple began to co-credit publicly for their projects in 1994, passed away from an aneurysm last year. The famed designer Issey Miyake, a friend of Christo, invited the Bulgarian-born artist to Tokyo for “Life=Works=Projects,” an exhibition at 21_21 Design Sight, to encourage him to continue the projects that he and Jeanne-Claude had still been working on: “Over the River” in Colorado and “Mastaba” in the United Arab Emirates. The show includes photos of all of their public art works — some completed, some not — and preparatory works by Christo, as well as important early pieces by the artist, such as jars wrapped in dirty canvas and books wrapped in plastic.

“Fabric has a long tradition in the history of art — thousands of years,” Christo explains when talking about the origins of his artistic approach. “Artists portrayed fabrics in their works, though of course it was not real fabric. It was done in bronze, marble, wood . . . . The greatest example of what fabric does in a work of art can be seen in (Auguste) Rodin’s work. The French sculptor created a figure of the novelist Balzac that was totally naked — big belly, skinny legs and a lot of detail. Seeing that figure, Rodin then took the cape of Balzac, dipped it in liquid plaster and shrouded the sculpture. Basically, he hid the details to highlight the principle proportions of the figure.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s large- scale projects take the same idea to new heights. Just as curious as their results, though, is the process that makes their art works possible. Christo describes two stages to this: “software” — planning — and “hardware” — installation.

“The software period is when the work only exists in drawings, sketches, scale models and in the minds of the thousands of people who try to help us as well as the minds of the thousand people who try to stop us,” says Christo.

A large part of the software stage involves figuring out how to rent the space. The couple, who financed all their projects themselves by selling the preparatory works produced by Christo, paid $3 million in rent to the city of New York for Central Park and $250,000 to the German nation to rent the Reichstag.

“We discovered that the Reichstag is owned by 80 million Germans. Fortunately they are represented by the 670 deputies of the parliament, so we realized that the only way to get permission is to have a majority of the parliamentarians support the project,” says Christo. “The principal opponent was Helmut Kohl, who did everything possible to defeat the project — changing the approval process from the simple signing of a paper to a 70-minute debate in parliament televised to 220 million spectators in the European Union.

“By this resistance to the project, Kohl elevated the importance of the work to an unbelievable dimension. It was very gratifying, and we defeated Kohl! We didn’t know that would happen back in 1971 when we started the project. This is why we do not do commissions. We like the work of art to build this power that is impossible to predict.”

Each of the couple’s projects has similarly acted as a way for the artists to engage with the world — just as often on a very personal scale as on a grand one — and find out what is necessary to make their massive plans realities.

“Jeanne-Claude, she’s not with us anymore, but she was always saying that it (the project) is like an expedition, like an incredible way to marvel at new places and people. With ‘The Umbrellas, Japan-U.S.A.,’ in Ibaraki, we talked to the 469 rice farmers who owned the land over the 12 miles of the project. The youngest was 60; the oldest was 92. Over the six years during which Jeanne-Claude and I talked to them, we drank probably 6,000 cups of green tea.”

“Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Life=Works=Projects” at 21_21 Design Sight runs till April 6; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m., closed Tue. (except April 6); admission ¥1,000. For more information, visit www.2121designsight.jp