"The world can live without them... They cannot be bought, nobody can charge tickets...They are an absolute expression of artistic freedom." How many artists can claim that absolute artistic freedom?
"All our projects are…totally useless," spectacular conceptual artist Christo, who passed away on May 31, at age 84, often said. "The world can live without them... They cannot be bought, nobody can charge tickets…They are an absolute expression of artistic freedom." How many artists can claim that absolute artistic freedom?
Christo's works are monumental, stunning, thought-provoking and even puzzling. Christo—born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff in Bulgaria—has wrapped varied objects throughout his career, including buildings (for Wrapped Reichstag, he wrapped up the German Parliament in silvery fabric in 1995), a bridge (the Pont Neuf in Paris), a million sq ft of coastline (Sydney), even islands (he dressed islands near Miami in pink 'skirts') and created 'The Gates,' with 7,500 orange 'curtain-gates' along New York's Central Park's walkways. The Times described The Gates, created in 2005, as "the first great public art event of the 21st century," though many other critics were less kind to Christo's art. And the art of Christo and his producer-wife Jeanne-Claude was popular worldwide. Wrapped Reichstag got five million visitors in two weeks, as did The Gates, while Floating Piers on Lake Iseo, Italy, drew 1.3 million visitors. Going by the number of visitors, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are among the most popular artists of the 20th/21st century so far. Wrap stars, the BBC called them.
When Christo wrapped up objects, and you could not see them anymore, you tended to reflect on their essence, and what they really meant to you. Many of these projects were very expensive (the Gates cost $21 million or R157 crore). Yet, they refused commissions, sponsorship, donations and grants, independently funding their projects by selling Christo's preparatory sketches, artworks in their own right. That too, for transient art, usually lasting a few weeks.
As an art student in Bulgaria, Christo was ordered to help farmers living along the route of the Orient Express (running from Paris to Istanbul), to hide their poverty from Western tourists, by neatly arranging hay and farm equipment, and covering unsightly stuff with tarpaulin. This Communist propaganda deeply influenced his conceptual art in concealment. It was a traumatic time: his father was arrested on obscure grounds and his textile chemical factory nationalised, and Christo's family denounced as capitalists. Christo eventually escaped to Paris as a migrant refugee on a train, where he lived as a street caricaturist, before meeting his future wife Jeanne-Claude. They produced their first work in 1961, and later moved to the US. Christo was the artistic director, and Jeanne-Claude, the producer, dealing with governments, landowners, lawyers and environmentalists for decades; the Wrapped Reichstag took 22 years of work. Yet, for the first 33 years of their joint career, Christo alone got the credit; in 1994 they took joint credit retrospectively.
The Christo principle of concealment is popular worldwide. During President Trump's visit to Ahmedabad in February, the city's slums were hidden behind walls to conceal poverty. During the Commonwealth Games in 2010 in New Delhi, slums were concealed behind huge banners. China had demolished much of non-slick Beijing before the 2008 Olympics. And Nargis, who famously played a poor peasant in Mother India, which won an Oscar nomination in 1957, coolly tore into Satyajit Ray for his Pather Panchali, as an MP in the 80s, for "exporting poverty to the West." Often, Indians are not ashamed of our poverty in itself and try to reduce it, but only if others see it, preferring to pretend that all izz well. I shudder to think of Christo's fate if he came to India today as an illegal immigrant. Or, would he be instantly officially embraced, as a Master of the Great Cover Up?
Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at email@example.com
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