I was thrilled to receive an invitation from my friend, Yu-Wen, to hear Christo speak in Stowe, Vermont last week. The 420-seat auditorium was packed on a freezing Thursday night. I haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing any of Christo’s site-specific art installations, but have followed his career since high school when I first saw pictures of Surrounded Islands – eleven islands in Biscayne Bay encircled by miles of pink fabric.
Christo and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, created over a dozen large-scale art installations, large-scale being an understatement. Since their first collaboration in 1962, they wrapped Australian coastlines in fabric, strung curtains across Rocky Mountain valleys, dotted rural Japanese and California landscapes with thousands of brightly colored giant umbrellas, wrapped the Reichstag, and set up over 7,500 saffron-colored silk gates throughout Central Park. Their projects consistently cost ten to twenty million dollars to complete, take decades to plan and execute, and become huge tourist attractions.
I was not surprised by this man’s energy and impactful presence on stage. Seventy-nine years-old, slight of build, dressed in jeans, a canvas jacket and yellow shirt, Christo spoke passionately about his current projects. One is Over the River, in which he plans to suspend six miles of fabric across the Arkansas River. He and Jeanne-Claude first envisioned this venture over twenty years ago. Environmental groups and local residents are impeding the project with lawsuits, but Christo is undaunted. He has hired environmentalists to complete studies of the impact on the river. The battles are far from over.
Another project is planned for installation outside of Abu Dhabi. The Mastaba, conceived in 1977, will be a trapezoidal structure larger than the Great Pyramid, constructed from over 400,000 painted oil drums. When completed, it will be the only permanent installation. All of their other projects were taken down and the materials recycled after one or two weeks. Christo is insulted by requests for pieces of the installations to be left behind, or parceled out as tourist draws.
It was clear from the Q&A session after his slide presentation that Christo is not motivated by external influences. He doesn’t seem to be interested in fame or fortune, except in their value toward financing his projects. A member of the audience asked him the big question: Why did you wrap the coastline in fabric? He replied, in a self-evident tone, simply that he wanted to. He did not appear to feel any need to explain himself, or his art, except to say that he has an unstoppable urge to do it.
The obstacles faced in the realization of these colossal feats have been relentless. The engineering alone is daunting. Sourcing the materials, dealing with bureaucrats and the elements, all could add up to defeat over a few years. Christo persists audaciously over decades to fulfill his and Jeanne-Claude’s vision. Perhaps that is one reason these works move us the way they do.