Christo. Photo Wolfgang Volz. Courtesy Serpentine Gallery. Christo & Jeanne-Claude Barrels and the Mastaba 1958-2018  is at Serpentine Gallery, London, from 19 June to 9 September

Christo’s towering ambition

The Bulgarian-born artist is famous for the audacious projects he completed with his late wife and collaborator Jeanne-Claude, including wrapping the Pont Neuf in Paris and Berlin’s Reichstag. As he tells Jonathan Bastable, he still has big plans — starting in London this month

Christo Javacheff was 21 years old, and already a gifted portrait painter, when he fled to the West more or less on a whim. The year was 1957, and anti-communist uprisings in Hungary and Poland had recently been quelled. The young Bulgarian artist joined a group of defectors heading for Austria in a freight train filled with medical supplies. There were anxious moments at the Czechoslovak frontier as border guards searched the cars, but this party of refugees was not discovered. Christo found himself in Vienna, penniless but unbound.

Christo with Wrapped Car (Volkswagen), 1963. Photo Charles Wilp. © 2018. Photo Scala, Florencebpk, Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Berlin. © 1963 Christo

Christo with Wrapped Car (Volkswagen), 1963. Photo: Charles Wilp. © 2018. Photo Scala, Florence/bpk, Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Berlin. © 1963 Christo

Christo, Wrapped Portrait of Jeanne-Claude, 1963. Oil on canvas portrait by Christo Javacheff, wrapped with polyethylene and rope by Christo, mounted on black wooden board. 30⅞ x 20⅛ x 2 in (78.5 x 51.2 x 5 cm). Collection David C. Copley (promised gift to the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, USA). Photo Christian Baur. © 1963 Christo 

Christo, Wrapped Portrait of Jeanne-Claude, 1963. Oil on canvas portrait by Christo Javacheff, wrapped with polyethylene and rope by Christo, mounted on black wooden board. 30⅞ x 20⅛ x 2 in (78.5 x 51.2 x 5 cm). Collection David C. Copley (promised gift to the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, USA). Photo: Christian Baur. © 1963 Christo 

It was not long after his defection that Christo started wrapping bottles and cans. Those thickly encased packages, tied tight with careful string knots and then lacquered to a hard finish like Ming boxes, seemed to be saying something in an oblique way about the smothering restrictions of a philistine dictatorship, the nannyish swaddling that the Soviet-dominated states of Eastern Europe inflicted on their citizens. But were they also the first test runs for the grandiose building wraps that were to come?

Christo is having none of that theory. ‘Yes, in the late 1950s and early 1960s I wrapped small things, then motorcycles or miserable-looking bundles of paper. They were part of how my ideas developed. But you should understand that the first proposal to wrap a building goes right back to 1961. I made a photomontage with a wrapped box in place of a building, and I wrote a text saying the object ought to be a prison or a parliament, as they are the most public buildings. The principal thing in our projects is the fabric, not the wrapping. It is the material that conveys the nomadic, transitional quality of the project. It is like a tent in the desert — it goes up very fast, it is immediate, and then it is gone for ever.’

Christo has real charisma. He is a slight figure, but his voice is bigger than his frame. Its gravelly quality, along with his fidgety energy, makes you wonder if he has recently given up smoking. When he talks about his work, he leans forward, his hands cupped in front of him, as if he were holding each thought in the bowl of his palm and examining it as he speaks. He apologises for his English, which, though entirely fluent, is heavily accented and occasionally faulty. Somehow this makes every utterance sound passionate, serious and considered.

Wrapping the Reichstag in 1995. Photo Roland Bauer. © 1995 Christo

Wrapping the Reichstag in 1995. Photo: Roland Bauer. © 1995 Christo

Some of those utterances take you by surprise, as when he insists that all his projects are ‘sensual’. What does he mean? ‘When we wrapped the Reichstag, we did not scaffold the building — no, not at all! Everything was done by rock climbers who drew the fabric down from about 40 metres high, so that the public could watch. People came up and touched the fabric, pushed it with their fingers. When do you ever see people touching buildings like that? That is the story! It is the enormous sensuality that makes them do it. There is a lot of physicality involved.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971–95. Photo Wolfgang Volz. © 1995 Christo

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971–95. Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1995 Christo

‘All the work is invitational; it asks you to feel it. I could tell you a thousand things. With Floating Piers [Lake Iseo in Italy in 2016], people removed their shoes to walk on it. Then there was Running Fence  in California [Sonoma and Marin Counties, 1972-76]: 40km of fabric, five and a half metres high. When the wind was blowing, the cattle would lean against the fabric, like it was a pillow.’

Such unplanned responses — from barefoot tourists to weary cows — are central to Christo’s art. He relishes the idea that pleasant surprises always emerge from his meticulous preparation. That, he says, is part of the point. Over the course of an hour-long discussion, he offers several differing but complementary statements about where, in his oeuvre, the art resides — each ending with the emphatic declaration: ‘That is the real  work of art!’

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972–76. Photo Wolfgang Volz. © 1976 Christo

Christo and Jeanne-ClaudeRunning Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972–76. Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1976 Christo

In every piece, he says, there is a ‘software period’ — the planning and getting permission — followed by a ‘hardware period’ — the construction of the work and its brief existence in situ. ‘The software period can last for years. We have countless meetings with mayors, senators, the community where the work will be. We make presentations, answer questions from the public. There is no easy way to do it, but that is part of the work of art.

‘Maybe there will be a thousand people who try to help us, and a thousand who try to stop us — who will even take us to court. That creates enormous energy around a work that does not yet even exist. What other artist can say that? The people who have objections — environmental, political — their reactions, too, are part of the work of art. Then comes the hardware period, when we build the real thing. At that stage, there is the dynamic, the expectation, the anxiety. The entire journey is the work of art, not the 14 days that the show lasts. And none of that can be invented or orchestrated or imagined. It can only be lived.’

‘We haven’t ever proposed anything impossible. But when we start, we don’t know how we are going to realise the concept — we have not the slightest idea. That is the most exciting part’ 

It is in the nature of Christo’s work that many ideas do not come off. ‘In 50 years we have realised 23 projects,’ he says, ‘but failed to get permission for 36.’ Last year, Christo made the news because he himself called a halt to a project as it was about to come to fruition. Over the River  would have involved suspending a silver canopy intermittently over a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River in Colorado, most of it on federal land. 

Despite the huge amount of work that had already gone into it, Christo pulled out, saying that he did not want to benefit the new ‘landlord’. But I put it to him that, at the time, he seemed irked that the offhand ‘landlord’ remark had made his withdrawal look like a barbed political protest. After all, Christo’s late wife and lifelong collaborator Jeanne-Claude had once said that, ‘Our art has absolutely no purpose, except to be a work of art — we do not give messages.’

Christo, The Mastaba of Abu Dhabi (Project for United Arab Emirates). Scale model 1979. Enamel paint, wood, paint, sand and cardboard. 32½ x 96 x 96 in (82.5 x 244 x 244 cm). Photo Wolfgang Volz. © 1979 Christo

Christo, The Mastaba of Abu Dhabi (Project for United Arab Emirates). Scale model 1979. Enamel paint, wood, paint, sand and cardboard. 32½ x 96 x 96 in (82.5 x 244 x 244 cm). Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1979 Christo

Wrong again. ‘What are you talking about?’ exclaims Christo. ‘Our projects are deeply political, all the time. Over the River  is one example. The people who were against us took Obama to court over it; they sued the US government. The case was still there when the new man was elected (I don’t want to say his name), and it was my decision to cancel. And Berlin: Helmut Kohl was against the Reichstag project — yet we defeated Kohl, an enormous power!

‘We had started the permissions process at the height of the Cold War, when Berlin was a divided city. Most of the Reichstag itself was in the British sector, but 30 metres of the east façade was in the Soviet sector. It’s strange, but the early correspondence about our request to wrap the building — letters from the US representative in Berlin to the US State Department — just came out on WikiLeaks. I was a stateless person then, and I remained a political refugee for 17 years. The Reichstag would have meant nothing to me had I not been born in a communist country.’

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83. Photo Wolfgang Volz. © 1983 Christo 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83. Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1983 Christo 

He has been in the West for 60 years now, and is one of the world’s best-known artists, but Christo insists that he remains an outsider. ‘The people who see our projects are not museum people, perceiving art in a highly hygienic, antiseptic space. My work is not for the art crowd who go to nicely perfumed rooms, air-conditioned places. All our projects deal with reality, not virtual reality. When we install three kilometres of floating pier, what you experience is three kilometres of floating pier — meaning, you have to walk the three kilometres on the water. You are exposed to real elements: sun, wind, rain, fear. Most art today is pure illustration — illustration of misery on film or video. There is nothing real.’

Christo, The Gates (Project for Central Park, New York City). Drawing 2003 in two parts. Pencil, charcoal, pastel, wax crayon, fabric sample, aerial photograph and hand-drawn technical data. 15 x 96 in and 42 x 96 in (38 x 244 cm and 106.6 x 244 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, USA (Gift of Melva Bucksbaum and Raymond Learsy). Photo André Grossmann. © 2003 Christo

Christo, The Gates (Project for Central Park, New York City). Drawing 2003 in two parts. Pencil, charcoal, pastel, wax crayon, fabric sample, aerial photograph and hand-drawn technical data. 15 x 96 in and 42 x 96 in (38 x 244 cm and 106.6 x 244 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, USA (Gift of Melva Bucksbaum and Raymond Learsy). Photo: André Grossmann. © 2003 Christo

And the art world, he feels, sometimes misses the point of his work. Our conversation turned to the Surrounded Islands  project, which involved dressing numerous islets off the coast of Miami in pink tutus, like a geographical corps de ballet. It was a beautiful piece, perhaps best seen from the air: in their vibrant skirts, the islands resembled gigantic water lilies, or poppyheads scattered on a plate.

‘The fabric that we put round the islands is not the whole work of art, no,’ says Christo. ‘It is also the colours of the water, the changing hues of Biscayne Bay. One blue umbrella from Japan is not a work of art, nor is one gate from the 7,503 that we installed in Central Park. Some stupid museums wanted to have one or two gates to put on display — but no, the work of art is not that.’

Aerial view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005. Photo Wolfgang Volz. © 2005 Christo and Jeanne-Claude 

Aerial view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005. Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 2005 Christo and Jeanne-Claude 

Surely the event itself is the crux of the thing, the actual work of art? However true it may be that for Christo and Jeanne-Claude every project has been an epic, for the majority of people their work is a sudden temporary spectacle, a splash of colour as short-lived as bunting at a street party. At last, Christo nods in agreement. ‘The projects exist for a short time, yes, but also for a long time — that is the beauty. The 14 days, they never happen again. Jeanne-Claude and I were there for every project, around the clock. “We have these two weeks with our precious babies,” Jeanne-Claude liked to say. As for me, I always feel physically, viscerally joined to the work.’

Christo, The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake). Drawing 2017 in two parts. Pencil, charcoal, wax crayon, enamel paint, hand-drawn map on vellum, technical data and tape. 38 x 244 cm and 106.6 x 244 cm. Photo André Grossmann. © 2017 Christo. The temporary sculpture will float on the Serpentine Lake from 18 June to 23 September 2018

Christo, The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake). Drawing 2017 in two parts. Pencil, charcoal, wax crayon, enamel paint, hand-drawn map on vellum, technical data and tape. 38 x 244 cm and 106.6 x 244 cm. Photo: André Grossmann. © 2017 Christo. The temporary sculpture will float on the Serpentine Lake from 18 June to 23 September 2018

So how does he feel when they’re gone? Would he not like to make something permanent? He shrugs. ‘People are so banalised by repetition — the World Series, blockbuster movies, the Olympics, most of the art we see — all the same things happening over and over. Jeanne-Claude and I, we never  do the same thing again. There will never be another Running Fence  or Floating Piers. If you didn’t see it, you missed it.’ This seems to be his credo. The determination always to move on, never to revisit, is surely what he meant when he described his art as nomadic.

Every project has been as experimental as those first works made of cans and paper and string. ‘We haven’t ever proposed anything impossible or phantasmagoric. But when we start, we don’t know how we are going to realise the concept — we have not the slightest idea. That is the most exciting part. It would be foolish of us to do something that we already know — so boring and unnecessary. I am nearly 83 and still in good health, knocking on wood. And I love that life is full of things that I don’t know how to do.’

Christo & Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and the Mastaba 1958-2018 is at Serpentine Gallery, London from 19 June to 9 September. The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake), The Serpentine lake, Hyde Park, London, 18 June to 23 September 2018