A waving sky of saffron
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 27 April 2004)

As a student in Bulgaria in the 1950s, Christo Vladimirov Javacheff learned how an artist's eye can change the look of an environment, even if only for a short time. Since then he's become celebrated on several continents for inventing his own unique art of brief but dramatic transformations. At the moment he's preparing a splendidly ambitious project for Central Park in New York.

When he was in his late teens, at the end of the Stalin era, Bulgarian national pride demanded that a certain stretch of landscape be disguised. In those days foreigners glimpsed Bulgaria only if they took the Orient Express, which roared through on its way from western Europe to Turkey. The government wanted that one glimpse to be impressive, and recruited art students from Sofia to help farmers make their wretched rural poverty look pretty from the windows of a train.

Christo and his friends piled hay in picturesque stacks, made sure farm machinery was arranged in an orderly way when not being used, and neatened the gravel beside the train tracks. They were working their own variation on the practice invented (so it is said) by Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, a lover of Catherine the Great, who erected villages that consisted only of facades to please the empress when she toured the Crimea in the 1780s, thus making "Potemkin village" a synonym for "sham."

In 1958, Javacheff dropped two of his names and began a new life in Paris as Christo. That year he also met Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon. She had been born on the same day as he, June 13, 1935, in Casablanca, to a French military family. In 1963 they moved together to New York, had a son, married, and began ferociously promoting and organizing his projects.

Many of these seemed clearly impossible. Nevertheless, through persistence, guile and vision, they managed to wrap certain buildings in fabric, stretch a curtain across a

river, plant hundreds of brightly coloured umbrellas in the countryside of Japan and California and (perhaps most famously) build Running Fence, a trail of white nylon through 39.4 kilometres of Sonoma and Marin Counties in California.

For three decades all this work was signed by Christo, Jeanne-Claude serving as manager and muse.

But, as the two of them tell it, she was all the while playing a creative role as well. It was her idea to float giant circles of pink woven polypropylene fabric around 11 islands in Biscayne Bay, Miami, in 1983, a stunning success. When their audacious plan to wrap the Reichstag in Berlin was coming to fruition, they finally recognized her role and made the official artist credit "Christo and Jeanne-Claude."

The story is set out in Jonathan Fineberg's beautiful art book, On the Way to The Gates, Central Park, New York City (Yale University Press), published alongside the exhibition about The Gates project at the Metropolitan Museum (it runs there till July 25). Like the Met show, the book assembles scores of paintings and drawings Christo made in preparation for The Gates. Through interviews it outlines the lengthy process Christo and Jeanne-Claude endure as they get permission to do their work.

They consider that the art event includes the long, sometimes infuriating job of overcoming bureaucratic opposition. Their projects always produce controversy, exposing the prejudices and ideals of everyone involved, including Christo and Jeanne-Claude. This fits Christo's notion that artists should work within the beliefs and systems of their era. Once, artists normally expressed religious ideals while mastering church politics. In our time they should deal with vast bureaucracies and work knowledgeably with engineers.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are like no other artists on Earth. They accept no grants from governments or private patrons and pay all expenses for all their work, from construction to security. They finance their huge projects through the sale of Christo's drawings and paintings, for which the market is apparently insatiable. For instance, they raised US$13-million to wrap the Reichstag (and just recently paid off the last bank loan).

They first proposed The Gates in 1979 but were rejected by city administrations until Michael R. Bloomberg became mayor. He accepted the idea a year ago last winter, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been working on it ever since. They will install 7,500 arches across the walks in Central Park, and suspend a large saffron-coloured fabric panel from each of them. People in the park will walk beneath a glowing ceiling. Those outside the park will see a river of colour appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees. The panels will all be unfurled on the same morning, Feb. 12, 2005, and remain for 16 days.

The work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude has no purpose except visual pleasure and collective joy. As Christo says, it's absolutely irrational, a virtue in an over-rationalized world. It's also ephemeral, a western parallel to the cherry blossoms in Japanese culture, which bloom for a few days, vanish, yet somehow embody all the yearnings and regrets of the Japanese. Christo and Jeanne-Claude, making impermanence their style, give us performances and memories rather than physical art works. Through a grand poetic gesture they transform a great object or location into a theatrical event.

Industries produce objects advertised as permanent, which turn out to be highly temporary, either faulty or quickly obsolete. Christo and Jeanne-Claude create temporary artistic events that become permanently installed in the imagination. When I visited the Reichstag in Berlin, seven years after Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped it in silvery polypropylene for two weeks and sent that gleaming image flashing around the world, the wrapping was part of the building's history. A great and terrible fact in the poisoned history of central Europe, the Reichstag had also become a shining moment in art history -- it was as if it had been reclaimed for humanity.

In the same way, no one who saw the Pont Neuf wrapped in woven polyamide fabric for two weeks in 1985 will ever forget it, and many of those who didn't see it for themselves enjoy and wonder over the superb photographs that remain. You don't need to visit a Christo work to enjoy it, though of course that helps. I for one hope to be in Central Park next February, under a waving sky of saffron.

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