Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, Collage 2007
© Christo 2000, photo Wolfgang Volz

The Hermitage Foundation in Lausanne presents the latest project by legendary artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Known for their spectacular environmental art, the husband-and-wife team reveals a current work-in-progress, the plan to cover a 64-kilometer stretch of America’s Arkansas River with shimmering fabric, but not before 2012.

Visitors to Lausanne’s Hermitage museum have a unique opportunity to discover the process that leads the couple to transform a site and make it a work of art. Ever since they met more than 50 years ago, Christo, of Bulgarian origin, and Jeanne-Claude, the daughter of a French army officer, have created 20 memorable environmental art projects in various countries, the latest one being The Gates in Central Park, New York, their home town for the past 45 years.

The Gates, Project for Central Park, NYC, Drawing in two parts / © Christo 2004, photo Wolfgang Volz

Until May 24, the Hermitage exhibition tells the story of a project that was started in 1992 and might materialize in 2012 – if all the necessary permits come through by the end of this year. Silvery sheets of fabric will be stretched onto panels girded by the banks of the Arkansas River in the state of Colorado, USA. For the duration of two weeks, visitors will see from above shimmering paths between water and sky, or they can embark on a rafting trip of five-and-a-half hours down a continuation of translucent tunnels.

The exhibition is best described as the living diary of a work in progress, from the very first sketch to the present day. Christo’s preparatory drawings and collages, some as large as a veranda window, others as small as a folder, adorn the walls of what is arguably Lausanne’s prettiest museum.

Telling photographs of meetings and discussions with the authorities, neighboring residents, environmentalists, engineers and lawyers, as well as site visits, pepper and enliven the remaining walls. And to give substance to the project, there is a real-size sample of the aluminum-covered fabric to be used as the sheeting, already prepared for the cables and pitons that will secure them.

Over The River, Collage 2007 in two parts / © Christo 2004, photo Wolfgang Volz

Over the River was originally conceived in Washington DC as a lobby tool to wrench the necessary permits from the US Federal government that owns the land through which the project is due to run. If approval is granted, it will take two years for the project to be set up.

Christo recognizes that the fierce administrative obstacles they face for each of their projects are due to lack of precedents. Who would want to cover a river or wrap a building? But they only borrow the sites for “gentle disturbances” and give them back in their original condition. “We may not be the world’s most famous artists, but we are the cleanest,” says Jeanne-Claude. All the fabric and materials used to produce the art works are entirely recycled.

Running Fence, Sonoma and Maric Counties, California 1972-76, Photo Jeanne-Claude / © Christo 1976

Shedding a new light on a site in an urban or a rural environment, but one that has already been transformed by man, is what Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been doing together for the past 50 years. Whether wrapping the ethereal Pont Neuf in Paris (1985) or the massive Reichstag in Berlin (1995), surrounding the Islands off Miami with flamingo-pink tutus (1982), dotting valleys in Japan and California with gigantic Umbrellas (1991), orchestrating orange Gates to flap in disrupted harmony in Central Park, New York (2005), each is a work that now belongs to our modern day imagery.

The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Paris, Drawing 1985 in two parts / © Christo 1985, photo Wolfgang Volz

Surrounded Islands, Drawing 1982 in two parts /© Christo 1982, photo Wolfgang Volz

And yet none of these wonders exist any longer. Following decades of preparation, the works take place over a short period of time and then disappear into the collective memory of cultural icons.

Wrappped Reichstag, Berlin 1971 / © Christo 1995, photo Wolfgang Volz
The artists were asked why they bothered to spend so much time on temporary installations. Jeanne-Claude responded that each idea springs from their desire to create art works of “beauty and joy” and that these ideas need to be built to be seen. But just as emotions are intensified when they are fleeting, so must their works be ephemeral. Temporality remains a key ingredient of their artistic process.
Christo said that what they do is “irrational, useless… irresponsible” since no one can buy the environmental site projects and they cannot be possessed. Almost as if to taunt the art market that jealously guards its artists, small squares of the fabric used for each of the works are distributed freely to the onlookers, as many as a million per project. The same is true of their signatures, which they distribute with lavish generosity.

Fiercely independent, the artists have never relied on galleries or sponsors to help finance their monumental projects. “It is expensive to be free”, says Jeanne-Claude, so to raise the kind of budget that would allow any national museum to survive for years, Christo’s exquisite preparatory sketches and collages are sold directly to institutional or private collectors.

The cost of wrapping the Reichstag was 15.3 million dollars in 1995, about 35 million today. The umbrella project in Japan and the USA cost 26 million dollars in 1991. These figures give an idea of the value of Christo’s art work and of the complementary ability of his wife to help translate the drawings into reality.

Because it is spectacular and uses man-made materials, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art appears disconnected from nature. And yet, the opposite is true since each project is designed to espouse and highlight a particular season. Over the River can only take place in the summer, the Gates in Central Park needed the branches to be winter-bare, and the Surrounded Islands could only take place during a spring window, before the hurricane season.

Ironically, another of their works-in-progress is one that escapes seasons entirely: The Mastaba is a work of art made of approximately 410,000 horizontally stacked oil barrels in the United Arab Emirates. It was conceived in 1977 and is still on the drawing board.

Jeanne-Claude and Christo in front of Wrapped Trees, Fondation Beyeler and Berower Park, 1998 / Christo 1998, photo Wolfgang Volz

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are the birds of the art world: they are free, will take no ideas from anyone and will never fly into the cage of a gallery. They are also funny, charming and seemingly lighthearted. How they have achieved amongst the most complex and ambitious art works to date is no doubt due to a combination of outrageous poetry, uncommon patience and great generosity.

Over the River: a Work in Progress makes Lausanne the envy of the art world for three months.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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