Art In Conversation
Christo and Jeanne-Claude with Praxis
Christo and Jeanne-Claude are one of the most well-known collaborative art teams in the world. Unlike any other artists of the present or past, they fabricate large-scale work that is at once enigmatic and simple. Christo and Jeanne-Claude have also created a way of being that affords them total independence: they are not represented by a gallery, they do not accept grants or sponsorship of any kind, they fund all of their projects themselves. They will create their major New York project, The Gates, in Central Park in February of 2005, which may cost them in excess of 20 million dollars. Currently at The Metropolitan Museum of Art there is a major exhibition about The Gates. We spoke with them in their studio in lower Manhattan.
Praxis: Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey (Rail): When we spoke with you both over a year ago in your home, we were discussing our work and yours and at that time, The Gates project was in progress and you had not received permission to install it in Central Park. You were both feeling hopeful because Mayor Bloomberg was just elected and you thought the new administration might see the project favorably. Now, here we are and the project is going forward after twenty-five years of persistence! Now that is hopeful!
Jeanne-Claude: And very expensive! We just placed an order for 5,200 tons of steel and next week we will place an order for sixty miles of vinyl poles.
Rail: Let’s talk about the very beginning of The Gates project.
Jeanne-Claude: It was 1979, and it was refused by the parks commissioner, Mr. Gordon Davis, who issued a 165-page book to say no. That was in 1981.
Rail: And the first seeds of this project?
Christo: 1964. When we arrived in the United States the skyline of Manhattan was very inspirational. The first proposal was to wrap two buildings in lower Manhattan, Two Broadway and Twenty Exchange Place. I did scale models, drawings, and collages. We tried to negotiate permission with the owners of the buildings. They never gave us permission; they thought we were lunatics, this is 1964 to 1966. Then in 1968 the Museum of Modern Art was to be the first wrapped public building and Professor William Rubin was Chief Curator. We tried to work to convince the insurance companies and the police to let us wrap MoMA, showing them scale models, but we never got permission.
Rail: Why not?
Christo: 1968 was a very troubled year for the Police Department with a lot of violence and turbulence. It could cause riots and the insurance forbid it. MoMA was not the first museum wrapped. It was the Kunsthalle in Bern, Switzerland in summer of 1968. But between ’67 and ’68 we also tried to wrap One Times Square, a building on the corner of 42nd and Broadway, and again we failed to get permission. This was all in the sixties.
Jeanne-Claude: We wanted to do something in New York.
Christo: We were already working on a project in Australia called Wrapped Coast in 1968. Of course we spent a lot of time working on that and realized the project in 1969, and then came back here and began working on a project called Valley Curtain in Colorado. That was realized in 1972. Then we worked on a project in California called Running Fence. Through all of the seventies we spent a lot of time in the west. We kept returning home to New York.
Jeanne-Claude: And each time we came back to New York, we noticed something very special to New York.
Christo: From a distance we saw that one of the most important things in Manhattan was not so much the buildings, but the people walking; it is a walking city. In the late seventies, we contemplated using the sidewalks to do a project, but thought we would never get permission. The only place people walk leisurely is in the parks. We wanted to do a project using human scale, not bombastic, something very simple about walking. Of course there are many parks, but one park that is exceptional is Central Park, which is completely man-made and is bordered all around by man-made streets and structures, not at all natural. Designed by Olmsted and Vaux, who were very Victorian, 150 years ago, they surrounded the park with stonewalls and created entrances that were formal. The openings in the stonewalls they called gates, and many of these gates have names, such as Gates of Immigrants, of Children, of Soldiers, of Artists.
They designed a walkway system that was very Victorian, moving in all directions, through open spaces and intimate spaces. We tried to design a structure that could energize the dullest and most banal space, between your feet and the first branches of the trees. When you walk, you don’t look at your feet and above you, you look ahead or at your friends. We tried to create something to energize that space. This is how The Gates came. The rectangular shape came from the hundreds of blocks around the park, which are rectangles, a very rigid geometric structure. That grid structure is reflected in the poles’ structure where the fabric is attached at the top so it can move very whimsically in all directions, reflecting the organic shapes of the paths and the branches above and the vegetation. This is the contrast of the strict geometry of the city blocks and the very sensual serpentine design of the walkway system. That is how the project came to be.
Rail: You had an original proposal that was then modified.
Jeanne-Claude: In 1980, the poles were skinnier and the gates were fifteen feet tall and we were imbedding the poles in the ground, and now they are sixteen feet tall and we are not imbedding the poles in the ground. We thought there would be many more, but in twenty-three years the trees have grown and there are many low branches above the walkways.
Christo: After measuring it all, we decided there will be 7,500 gates. Now the project is very gentle, you walk inside the project, as with our project with the umbrellas.
Rail: A focus on inner space and outer space, these are different approaches to your work.
Christo: Yes, that is the first proposal of inner space; we started the umbrellas project in 1984.
Jeanne-Claude: But if you know our work, there is a concern for outer space/inner space with the storefronts in 1964.
(We all walk over to the park map on their wall continuing the discussion on The Gates)
Jeanne-Claude: As you can see on this map, every twelve feet there will be a gate, but here there are low branches and we cannot put a gate, et cetera, so we have now an exhaustive study of all the walkways. We divided the entire park into 51 sections.
(We look through more maps and drawings.)
Rail: Why the color saffron?
Jeanne-Claude: It will be done in late February, the only month we can be absolutely sure there are no leaves on the trees. We want the fabric to be seen from not only very close-up, but also from far away between the bare branches of the trees.
Christo: Of course that saffron color comes from the color of autumn leaves. The saffron color is also very beautiful when it is wet and in the snow.
Rail: Your endurance on all this extraordinary. Your persistence…
Jeanne-Claude: Not always. We have completed eighteen projects and have had thirty-eight failures, permission was refused and we lost interest. But some projects we kept in our heart and did not lose interest, like the Pont Neuf, which took ten years, and the Reichstag, which took twenty-five years, and The Gates when we finish it will be twenty-six years. Wrapped Trees took us thirty-two years!
Rail: As far as artistic spirit, when do you give up?
Christo: Our projects have a similarity to architecture and urban planning. And if you want to build a skyscraper or a bridge or a highway, you must spend a lot of time to do it—it is not like making a sculpture. You go through a huge process of permits and regulations and all kinds of things. All kinds of governmental agencies get involved.
Rail: Yes, but you are artists, and you are coming in with a project that doesn’t have a use-value like architecture, why do you think people let you do these projects?
Christo: We need to work with them to help them understand. If they do not understand the project it is our fault, not theirs. Take the Reichstag for instance, we are borrowing something that belongs to someone else, in that case, the German nation. We needed to convince the majority of the 660 elected persons in parliament to give us permission. We arrive in offices and bring books to explain the projects, then one of them may say, "OK, I will vote for you, but you must explain to my constituency why I should vote for you."
Jeanne-Claude: So then we must lecture throughout Germany to all those people, the butcher, the baker, the kindergarten class.
Rail: And what do you say?
Christo: We show the slides of what we have previously done. We explain we want to create a work of art; we are talking about beauty and joy. We explain that we pay for all of it with our own money—no grants, no sponsors, no taxpayer money—and everyone who works on the project will be paid and we will comply with all regulations. Also, all of our materials will be recycled after the exhibition is over.
Jeanne-Claude: Then we answer questions and try to keep smiling!
Christo: Also, our projects are extremely simple, and simple in title. It is what is there: there is a curtain in the valley, it is called Valley Curtain, there is a fence running through fields, Running Fence, a bridge wrapped is called Wrapped Bridge. Not a complicated title or foolish name.
Jeanne-Claude: Even the idea and the image are very simple.
Rail: You both have a lot of passion when you present these things. I once read a book about urban planning where a man was saying when you go into a local town hall, in front of a planning board, and you are passionate about a project, it is often greeted with suspicion.
Christo: Of course many people think that this isn’t art—it’s a waste of money, it’s foolish, it’s megalomania, why spend so much for sixteen days? There is no recipe for getting a project completed; we just try to present the project in very simple, clear terms that are exciting. People resist change, they do not want to be bothered with something new that they may or may not like, and we try to explain that life is more exciting when there is change, even if you do not like it…
Rail: That is a big leap! It isn’t easy to convince people of that.
Jeanne-Claude: Of course, but of course people are very resistant, for example in the Over the River project people said, "There will be so much traffic on our roads, what if someone has to give birth and can’t get to the hospital?" So we say, "OK, we will have three helicopters standing by all the time in case that happens." Then they say, "People will drive onto the dirt roads and there will be too much dust," so we say, "OK, we will have trucks there to water the dirt every morning so there will be no dust."
There are conditions for The Gates because we are entering in the park on the 3rd of January 2005 and will be in the park until the 15th of March 2005. The biggest job is to install these 15,000, steel weights.
Christo: So, the city of New York asked us to transport this in the evening because there will be so many trucks and only 80,000 pound trucks can go over the Queensboro Bridge. So the trucks must be moving non-stop…
Rail: You are a collaborative, what is the difference between Christo and Christo and Jeanne-Claude?
Jeanne-Claude: There is a difference. Everything that is created to be indoors, such as this drawing (pointing to the framed drawing on the wall), which you wouldn’t put in your garden, is by Christo. Every work which is outdoor, that is a work by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The only exception is in the case of large-scale indoor works which would also be by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
Rail: You present yourself as two, why was that decision late in your careers?
Jeanne-Claude: Well, that started in 1994, before that we didn’t have the courage to do it. We thought it was hard enough for one artist to establish himself and if we said two, perhaps impossible. Even in the case of the Surrounded Islands which was my idea, not Christo’s, we didn’t tell anyone because we thought if we said this is a Jeanne-Claude idea we would never get the permit. That was 1980 when we started. In 1994 we felt we were mature enough to tell the truth.
Rail: You are notorious hard workers, do you take vacations?
Jeanne-Claude: We don’t take vacations. But, if you get in a van and travel 15,000 miles in August, most people would call it a vacation. We were looking for a river to do our Over The River project. I wouldn’t call it a vacation when you get up at 4:30 or 5 and work the whole day with topographic maps, it is working, though it was beautiful.
Rail: Do you bounce ideas off people?
Christo: All the time.
Jeanne-Claude: Throughout the whole process we talk with our engineers. For example, how are we going to adjust for verticality of The Gates when all the paths of Central Park are at different angles? A special pivoting system was created by our engineer to make a perfectly level situation. Throughout the entire project we work with our collaborators.
Rail: But the initial idea always begins with you two?
Jeanne-Claude: Yes, always. We don’t accept the thousands of proposals that people send us, like "please come wrap my castle," or "we have a beautiful river." There was a governor in Japan who wrote to us and said, "If you do the Umbrella Project in my district I will pay for every cent of your expenses." We said, "Thank you very much but we have already chosen our location." You can’t imagine how many mayors write us from all over the world and say, "We have a beautiful bridge, please come wrap it and we will pay all your expenses."
Christo: This is very important, all our projects are unique images; there will never be again an Umbrella Project or a Wrapped Bridge or a Running Fence or Surrounded Islands. They are designed for that particular place.
Rail: But you wouldn’t wrap the Whitney or MoMA as you once proposed?
Jeanne-Claude: No, no, never, they lost their chance.
Christo: No, no.
Rail: But it would be a unique image…
Christo: No, it is not unique!
Jeanne-Claude: The ideas come out of our hearts and our heads, and, once the idea is no longer in our hearts and our head, it is finished.
Jeanne-Claude: It is very important that you understand that when people write letters to the New York Times and say, "We don’t want them to wrap Central Park," it is completely idiotic. In their head we wrap everything. The last idea of a wrapping was the Pont Neuf in 1975, never another.
Christo: People have asked us to do The Gates in other parks in the world and we will not do it.
Rail: Your stance is so different from many artists today, that you do not accept any sponsorship or grants of any kind, and on top of that your projects cost a small fortune.
Jeanne-Claude: If you ask us how much each project in the past cost, we can tell you exactly. But before the project is completed, we can’t say. It is like a child of ours, it will cost whatever it has to—I have never met a parent that has a budget for their child. The Gates project may reach $20 million.
Christo: We are not against grants, but I came from an extremely oppressive communist dictatorship and I escaped in search of freedom, and I will never sacrifice my freedom for anything. And these projects are philosophically about freedom. Nobody can buy or own these projects. We don’t sell tickets to see them. They’re free and they are not owned by us, which is why they go away because freedom is the enemy of possession and possession is equal to permanence.
Public art that is financed by taxpayer money or corporations—when people say, "We will build this great art object and everyone will feel better"—is idiotic. This is why our projects are outside of that idea.
Jeanne-Claude: If we accepted every offer we had to buy one of our umbrellas we would have made back the 26 million dollars we spent. But one umbrella is not a work of art; the work of art is 3,100 umbrellas, blue in Japan and yellow in the United States. The umbrellas were removed and the material recycled.
Christo: Also, we want to pay for the whole project to achieve total independence and quality in many little things. For example, in the umbrellas we spent $500,000 more because we didn’t want a seam in the fabric between the ribs of the umbrellas…The fabric of The Gates will cost more because of how we want to dye the fabric, and if we had to negotiate with a corporation, they wouldn’t stand for it.
Rail: What artists do you admire?
Jeanne-Claude: Our one hero, Giotto, whom we try to show to all our friends and collaborators when we are in Italy. Among living artists, we have great respect for Nam June Paik and a Catalan artist, Antoni Miralda, and of course Jean Tinguely when he was alive, because I consider the fountain he created in Basel the most important sculpture of the twentieth century.
Rail: You are both so obsessed…
Christo: Every minute of my life I give to my work.
Jeanne-Claude: We have no friends who aren’t collaborators.
Christo: We haven’t a second to think of anything else…
Jeanne-Claude: Really we don’t have any friends that we don’t work with…
Rail: But when we met you last year, it was only to talk.
Jeanne-Claude: We have made exceptions, but generally we spend all our time with friends that we work with.
Rail: Have you ever thought of projects too big to create?
Christo: No, all our projects are extremely humble and economically feasible. With our engineers we try to make projects as easy as possible.
Rail: But The Gates is a huge organizational feat, how will it unfold?
Christo: Yes, with The Gates project there will be 7,500 gates. We need to hire 560 people to complete the project, and everyone will be paid. They will be divided into teams of seven people; each team will be responsible for 80 to 100 gates. On February 4th, 5th, and 6th of 2005 the teams will rehearse at our assembly plant in Queens. Then each team will install the gates at a rate of twenty per day, and they have five days to install their gates. The fabric remains in a cocoon at the top of the gate; you don’t see the fabric.
On Saturday morning February 7th, weather permitting, at daybreak each team will open their gates and the entire project will bloom in half a day. After that, they will monitor the project from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m. They will be giving away free fabric samples (for those who ask) and printed material. Then there is private security after 7p.m. After 16 days, the work is done in reverse; they pull down the gates and remove them, and the materials will be recycled.
Rail: If people want to work with you?
Jeanne-Claude: They should go to the website www.thegateswork.com. For information on our main projects they can look at our website www.christojeanneclaude.net.
Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey are Praxis, an art collaborative whose projects have been shown in PS1/MOMA and in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. They are also writing a book and directing a cinema verité feature film. Their ongoing project, The New Economy, has ambitions to abolish order as we know it. Their projects and texts can be seen online at www.twobodies.com.
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