by Gautam Sen, Avik ChattopadhyayJan 13, 2021
When asked about her retirement, the late Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon is reported to have said, “artists don’t retire, they die”. It was this very spirit that Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, the hitherto remaining half of ‘Christo and Jeanne-Claude’ as the couple was known to the world, displayed until his death at the age of 84. So tireless was the artist in his creation of ephemeral superstructures that it is hard to think of him as an octogenarian and his output is such that his passing does not affect the posthumous production of yet more.
Oil barrel walls blocking the roads of Paris, a colossal curtain cutting through the Rocky Mountains, monuments such as the Pont-Neuf in Paris and the Reichstag in Berlin draped entirely in fabric – through the years the art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude have brought a pragmatic, albeit temporary, double life to the most unsuspecting of locales. Yet behind the grand scale and ambition of Christo’s art are tumultuous origins. Born in Bulgaria in 1935, he was swept by the vicissitudes of the Second World War and became stateless in the mid-1950s. Christo met Jeanne-Claude in Paris in 1958 and they began working together in 1961, laying the foundation for a lifelong collaboration.
Despite being equals in work, it was only Christo’s name that was known until 1994 and this was a conscious decision on their part pre-empting hurdles in a male-dominated industry. Throughout their career one can see a masked propensity for subversion, that is to say that while outwardly accepting certain norms and restrictions, both perceived and dictated, they attempted to dissent in between the gaps. For example, as a critic of the capitalist mode they subjected their main body of work to exchange but rather monetised preparatory drawings, models and other such by-products of process. So, while ensuring the survival of their practice in a capitalist economy, the integrity of their art was preserved against any kind of arbitrary valuation based on cash.
Though emphasis has often been laid on the purely aesthetic nature of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work, with the couple having described their work as being frivolous at times, their work was and is still products of their time and an inclination towards political commentary can be traced from their very first work titled Rideau de Fer (The Iron Curtain), which granted Christo recognition in the city of lights, which was a reaction against the construction of the Berlin Wall. In later works such as Wrapped Reichstag, the very act of covering up national symbols can be taken first and foremost as political before any consideration of its sensual qualities.
In the USA, where Christo finally found citizenship after 17 years of statelessness, the artists’ works became even larger and began navigating complex terrains, in works such as Surrounded Islands and The Gates. In the former, eleven islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay was surrounded by pink fabric, in what could fairly be described as epic proportions and in the latter, New York’s Central Park was converted into a giant saffron pathway fit for circumambulation.
Since the death of Jeanne-Claude, Christo has created the Big Air Package in Oberhausen, Germany, which was for a while the largest self-supporting installation in the world; The Floating Piers on lake Iseo in Italy, where 70,000 square meters of bright yellow fabric was made into walkways for the public; and The London Mastaba, a floating sculpture on the Serpentine in London in the form of an ancient Mesopotamian bench comprising of 7506 oil barrels. The form of the last was to be employed again in an installation that was to be over five times larger at al Gharbia in UAE and would be the only permanent work attributed to the couple if it is ever completed.
Christo had made arrangements so that their unfinished projects may see the light of day even if he was to die and in the tradition of some of their most iconic works, the next Christo and Jeanne-Claude is to be a wrapping of the L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which is scheduled for 2021. Initially conceptualised in 1962, it seems almost poetic that he would end his prolific career with an idea that was thought up in the very beginning.
(Recommended reading: STIR feels fortunate to have reviewed one of the most iconic projects of Christo and Jeanne-Claude titled ‘The Floating Piers’. Click here for the article)