Rory MacLean / Visual Culture

Unwrapping Christo

Famous for their fabric installations, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have created some of the most compelling artworks of the 20th century, and by wrapping Berlin’s Reichstag, helped a nation step out from the past.

Christo ReichstagIn New York in the 1970s a private art collector received a package from his dealer.  He untied the wrapping and found nothing inside it.  In fury he telephoned his dealer and complained, ‘The package is empty.  Are you trying to rip me off?’

‘Listen to me,’ said the dealer, taking a deep breath.  ‘Tie the package back together very carefully. It’s a Christo.’

As well as small packages and drawings, Christo – and his partner Jeanne-Claude – have created unique environmental works of art, for example surrounding eleven islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay in floating pink polypropylene, wrapping the oldest bridge in Paris, Pont-Neuf, in sand-coloured fabric and running a 24-mile nylon fence across Sonoma and Marin counties in California.

Wrapping was their thing, and the huge scale of most of their work remains both impressive and controversial. But Christo (and Jeanne-Claude who died in 2009) always denied that their projects contained any meaning beyond the immediate aesthetic impact. Their purpose, they said, was simply to make works of art or joy and beauty and to create new ways of seeing familiar landscapes.

In 1995 – after almost twenty years of planning and persuasion and in their most important work – Christo (and Jeanne-Claude) wrapped the Reichstag. The post-war division of Europe had had a major impact on Christo’s life: he had been born in Bulgaria, escaped the Communist bloc by hiding in a railway freight wagon, lived as a stateless person for 17 years, came first to public attention with Rideau de Fer (Iron Curtain) when he and Jeanne-Claude blocked off Rue Visconti, a small Parisian street near the River Seine, with oil barrels. Wrapping the Reichstag was the realisation of a dream.

But did this remarkable project really have no deeper meaning? Is it true – as Jeanne-Claude said – that ‘Our art has absolutely no purpose, except to be a work of art. We do not give messages’?

Until 1995 for many Berliners the Reichstag had been a blackened symbol of the failure of German democracy: Kaiser Wilhelm II had openly expressed his contempt for the ‘talking shop’, its effectiveness had been squandered during the Weimar ‘republic without republicans’ years, its burning in 1933 had enabled the Nazis to suspend all civil liberties. At the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the decision to restore the capital of reunited Germany to Berlin, the building was burdened by its tangled, bloody history and association with totalitarianism.

But then along came Christo with ‘a 100,000 square metres of silver-coloured polypropylene in his pockets, and wrapped our Reichstag,’ recalled the Berlin historian and writer Niko Rollmann. ‘And there we stood, for two warm summer weeks, five million people altogether, and couldn’t believe what we saw. Had the hippies put LSD into the water supply? Was it just a big hallucination? Sure, this was our Reichstag – but not as we knew it! Christo had wrapped it up like a little (or rather large) present, a present for a nation which was at last unified, democratic, free and on good terms with its neighbours!  It felt as if we could, for once, step out of the shadow of the past and be a little bit playful.’

Christo – and Jeanne-Claude – had made the building disappear, thereby sweeping away many of Berliners’ haunting memories, enabling the Reichstag to be reborn and then reconstructed by Norman Foster. As the art critic David Bourdon wrote, Christo’s wrappings brought ‘revelation through concealment’. The breadth and daring of the artists’ vision helped Berliners and Germans – when they unwrapped the package – to see themselves anew. Unlike the New York art collector, they discovered that there was much more than nothing inside the wrappings. ■

Image courtesy of txmx 2.

Rory MacLean is the author of Falling for Icarus, as well as the UK bestsellers Stalin’s Nose and Next Exit Magic Kingdom.

This article was initially published on Rory MacLean’s blog Meet the Germans.

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