Christo enters the gallery space of his SoHo studio, walking in front of large framed renderings of sketches for his newest project, The Floating Piers in Italy’s Lake Iseo [June 18 to July 3, 2016], before sitting down on a white chair. He matches the room, with long white hair, a pinstriped shirt, and affectionate eyes behind black-rimmed glasses. Even though the room is big, it is warm; a fitting atmosphere for the artist, who, along with his late wife Jeanne-Claude, revolutionized the framework for grand scale pieces. With a sharp and poetic intellect, Christo talked to us about his work and his partner, touching on everything from optimism, patience, and love.
Each project has its own unique journey. This is why we never do the same things again; we will never do another gate, we will never wrap another bridge, or install other umbrellas. The unique journey to something would take a long long time. All these projects involve the idea of art and there are many elements of architecture and urban planning; they involve complex relations to the space. It is not normal sculpture, and it is not object itself, all these projects are related to space that we are borrowing and renting.
Each project has two distinct periods: the software period and the hardware period. The software period is when the work exists only in drawings and sketches, and when hundreds or thousands of people try to help us to get permission, and also when thousands of people try to stop us from getting the permission. Some of these projects take many years, like the Reichstag took 25 years and three refusals before we could actually do it – same thing with the Gates and the Pont Neuf. These projects have a long period of realizing the journey; meaning that the work of art involves a software period when it does not exist, and a hardware period when we physically build the project, which involves miles and miles of real distance, real wind, real people, the real wet, the real dry, not virtual reality, not film. All that is the work of art – the software and the hardware.
It is very difficult for some people to grasp that these projects involve a physical engagement of yourself. It’s not something to look at, but, because it’s three-dimensional, it involves your physical senses. This is why the work cannot be bought nor do we charge a ticket price; the work doesn’t even belong to us – they’re so large, so obtuse, so irrational, and totally useless. They only exist because we like to have them…they are absolute total freedom. And, of course, they cannot be kept, because their freedom is contrary to possession and to permanence.
The immortality of art is linked to what we think we know. People dig up the earth and discover remains of people five or ten thousand years ago, and through these remnants construct an idea of how they lived. We built an entire history about white Roman marble, but didn’t know until later that the marble was actually painted. It is very difficult to imagine what modern archeology will be like a thousand years from now. It’ll probably be a little computer chip. It is also very difficult to imagine how people will look at us a thousand years from now. This is why the idea to create things that are immortal is something so complicated, and why I am not even thinking about that.
I like to do work where there will be something unique, some journey of life where each project is part of our existence. We always like to go back to the site of the project. In 2007, before Jeanne-Claude passed away, we went to where we had done the Wrapped Coast in Australia. We stood on these huge tall cliffs on the South Pacific Ocean filled with sharks and I had dislocated my shoulder. We were looking at this very strong wind coming from the ocean, and Jeanne-Claude said that to have done the Wrapped Coast was totally nuts, but we were younger and we were living.
The projects find themselves. In a similar way, it was probably very good that the Reichstag was wrapped after the Berlin Wall fell down. Before the fall, and through the years during the Cold War, there were many articles against the wrapping of the Reichstag. To wrap the Reichstag we needed to have permission, since it was in a military zone in Berlin that was divided in four alliance forces: French, British, Americans and Soviets. The Soviets insisted to have rights to the Reichstag and to control the use of it for political means. I remember the project was refused in ’77 and in ’81. An article was written saying, “this is the stupid imperialistic, capitalist artist.” Basically, the work was suffering from that division of the world, and it could finally be done when the wall fell down.
The Floating Piers, is about the pleasure of enjoying many things: relation, form, proportion, movement. But it cannot be explained. It is something that needs the use of the senses to be enjoyed. That’s how it is for our work. It involves physicality because Jeanne and I love that. There are no stools and no chairs in my studio, so I am standing for 15 hours. I don’t like to sit, I don’t like to talk on the telephone, I don’t know how to use a computer, I don’t know how to drive. Basically, I like physical things, this is something personal, this is something I enjoy tremendously and the physical senses are important to know things like the relation of wind.
My greatest fear is to be sick. I do everything possible to be in good health. I would like to die like Jeanne-Claude, actually. I don’t want to be sick, I can’t stand myself being in a wheelchair. If something got that bad I would kill myself. I enjoy so much to touch things, to see things, that I cannot imagine myself incapacitated. I really take care, I have no elevator, I climb 90 steps 30 times a day.
I have always been a great optimist. Even in the most difficult moments, I’m always fine. I never feel miserable. Of course, we’ve been through enormous problems, but it’s like a game, it’s almost like gambling. And if you do that you enjoy the energy, and you cannot complain because all the problems we make ourselves. The reason we do these projects is because they are so enriching and so unforgettable, and this is why each project carries so much unpredictability. It is not misery – it is challenges, it is frustration, and it is enormous joy.
I remember, for two precious weeks, Jeanne-Claude and I didn’t see anybody. We wanted to be alone with our things and to walk to the places we worked in. There was an incredible pleasure to be there with her for those 16 days in the places we had worked. I met Jeanne-Claude in 1958. I was born in Bulgaria; half Macedonian, a quarter Czechoslovakian, and a quarter Bulgarian. In 1956, I was in Prague visiting my relatives when the Hungarian revolution started, and I escaped from Czechoslovakia to Vienna. I was alone and a political refugee at 21 years old, so the important thing was to go to Paris, but it was difficult because I was a refugee.
Finally, I arrived in Paris. I didn’t speak the language, but because I was an art student I was doing commissioned portraits. I would go to people’s homes and do portraits of the families and children. I met some officer of the United Nations from Geneva, and one of the biggest suppliers of portraits was their hairdresser. She would tell people, “There is this young artist he paints portraits.” One of the people she told this to was Jeanne-Claude’s mother, so I was commissioned to do a portrait of Jeanne-Claude. Love. I cannot describe love, love is very complicated. Love is something human and very private and very personal.
Photography: Peter Ash Lee for NeueJournal