Christo, the artist who ‘wrapped’ the Reichstag, has died aged 84. In this piece from 2016, Gaby Wood joined him in Italy for the creation of 'The Floating Piers'
On the edge of a small lake in northern Italy, an 80-year-old artist looks out from his temporary headquarters. “In that lake is the tallest mountain island in Europe,” says Christo Javacheff, long known, by his first name only, for a series of outlandish environmental projects. “Two thousand people live on it. And to go to the mainland, they have no bridge.” For this problem, Christo has come up with a solution almost comically in keeping with the actions of his namesake. “For 16 days,” he says, “they will walk on the water!”
We are on the shore of Lake Iseo, in the ruins of a factory where aeroplanes were made between the wars. People are milling about amongst Portakabins and several large containers full of industrial yellow fabric are lined up against a wall. A notice alerts visitors to the fact that they may be caught on camera. All of Christo’s projects are documented – in the past, his film-makers were the great brothers Albert and David Maysles, but both are now dead, and only their sound man Mike remains.
Christo was born in Bulgaria, escaped to Paris in the Fifties and now lives in New York, but he has worked all around the world. Over the past 50 years, in collaboration with his late wife Jeanne-Claude, he has wrapped, as if in preparation for removal men, a tree in Eindhoven, a fountain in Spoleto, a wall in Rome, the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont Neuf in Paris. He has encased islands off the coast of Miami in shocking pink, and placed orange banners throughout Central Park in New York.
“We realised 22 projects,” he announces just minutes after we’ve met, “and we failed to get permission for 37.” For decades, The Floating Piers in Iseo was one of the 37; it’s about to become accomplishment number 23.
This is the only large-scale project Christo has done since The Gates took over Central Park 11 years ago, and the first since the death of Jeanne-Claude in 2009. Nevertheless, he considers it hers too, since they had the original idea together in 1970. Some of their projects have a gestation period of 20 or 30 years – it can take that long to get the required permission. (“The permission process,” he suggests, “is almost identical to building a highway.”)
In this case, they tried to do the floating piers in Argentina, then in Japan. Finally, in 2014, Christo turned to his nephew Vladimir, who assists him, and said: “I will be 80 years old in 2015, and I’d like to do something fast, because I don’t know how long I will live.” They settled on northern Italy, came upon officials who were exceptionally congenial, and have put together a dramatic artwork in record time.
While Mike wires me for sound, Christo pulls a map out of his pocket, and, as if planning a Napoleonic campaign, traces the triangular path of the piers we are about to walk along. They link Monte Isola to the mainland, and a smaller island called San Paolo to Monte Isola. 16 metres (52ft) wide and 5.5 kilometres (3.4 miles) long, they are composed of 220,000 large plastic cubes held together with 220,000 matching screws, and kept in place by 190 anchors weighing five tons each.
The technology – astonishing in itself – allows for some movement with the waves, and eventually, after all the felt underlay has been applied, the piers will be covered in deep yellow polypropylene fabric.
“Are you ready to walk?” asks Christo, who is lean and decisive in his movements. “We walk on the water now!”
The work begins not at the water but in the lakeside town of Sulzano: swathes of dahlia yellow will cover the cobbled streets nearest the lake, luring you towards something you can’t yet see. And then, between two pale stone houses, the long, commanding expanse of the first pier reveals itself. Christo calls it an “avenue”. You’re the new Baron Haussmann, I suggest, as we mount the wobbly plastic paving, and he grins.
In drawings, and seen from above, the floating piers are very modern; bright geometric interventions. Yet in the company of their solicitous creator, who insists on accompanying me along their entire 5.5km stretch and repeatedly offers to carry my bag, they seem more like a knightly gesture, in keeping with the town’s medieval history. I begin to picture the yellow fabric as a cloak laid down by Christo for his visitors, so that they might walk across the giant puddle of Lake Iseo without sullying their shoes.
“I like people,” he tells me as we make our way to the island. “Many artists don’t like people. I speak very bad English, very bad French. But I like humans! You know, we in reality have nothing to do with the art world. Many people here have never been probably in a museum. They want to be present at something that happens once in a lifetime and never again.”
Christo also likes to walk. “In my studio I am standing 15 hours a day,” he says. “In our building there are 90 steps, and no elevator.” He has weighed 58kg his entire adult life, which he puts down to the fact that he eats raw garlic and yogurt every day for breakfast. (“I travel with my own garlic,” he informs me.)
He does indeed prove to be unstoppable: the morning begins in low-hanging fog, which breaks into a blaze against the piers’ bright surface at midday, then rumbles into an afternoon thunderstorm. Yet while I sweat and burn and cover up against the rain, Christo, who will turn 81 four days after we meet, remains the same: bronzed, white-haired and unflustered, in a formal white-collared pink shirt.
“Look!” he exclaims, pointing to the camber of the plastic edges. Around us, workmen are pumping water into the last cubes to create a slope. “It’s very sexy! You see the waves coming? They caress you. Look, look, look!” He explains proudly that this would not be allowed in any other country. You’d have to have handrails, or a level edge at the very least.
“Imagine what greatness the Italians have! It’s the only country in the world where art and culture is part of the constitution.”
Is he not worried about possible accidents? “We have insurance!” he declaims, and assures me that there will also be guards, and lifeboats scanning the piers.
I notice that some of the workmen’s instructions are written in Cyrillic. Christo explains that his crew is Bulgarian. Under the Soviets, he says, there was a dedicated sports academy in Bulgaria. “After the fall of communism, they kept that academy. The chief of construction said: 'I need people who work seven days a week, who don’t drink or smoke’. And he hired students from the sports academy! They are all runners, weightlifters… If you see them, they do not walk, they run.”
How does he feel about doing this without Jeanne-Claude, I ask. Christo smiles. “One thing I miss so much of Jeanne-Claude is that she was extremely critical and argumentative. She never allowed anything to be decided because it was easy to do it like this or that. Whenever we have a problem, I say: what Jeanne-Claude would say now?”
And what would she say?
It’s difficult to know, he suggests. “But she loved the water, and she loved Italy.”
Christo’s accent tells, to some extent, the story of his life. It’s indeterminate – with rolled “r”s, inverted grammar, and some constructions borrowed from French. When he and Jeanne-Claude moved from Paris to the United States in 1964, she used to say they had emigrated specifically to Manhattan.
“The only place where everybody is a foreigner and nobody cares how you speak English is New York,” Christo tells me with some joy. He understands but no longer really speaks Bulgarian; in order to communicate with his crew, he has to dredge up words from behind the Iron Curtain he so determinedly left in 1957. To watch this is to witness a miniature act of memory and erasure.
He began wrapping things in the late Fifties – small objects, like bottles or cans. He had escaped Bulgaria by then, via a visit to communist Prague, a bribe that got him into Austria, and a trip, after his second stint at art school, to Paris. His status as a political refugee led his family to suffer, he tells me – they had all already witnessed public executions during the war, and his father was later imprisoned for not being a member of the Communist Party – but they understood. He titled the objects he wrapped “inventory”, and describes them now as having a nomadic aspect, as if everything were about to move house, or country.
In Paris, he made a living washing dishes and cars, or by painting classical portraits of rich people. He was introduced to these clients by the hairdresser who rented him a chambre de bonne, the now-famous Jacques Dessange. Among them were Brigitte Bardot, and Jeanne-Claude’s mother. (Later, he wrapped the Bardot portrait in plastic.)
Christo and Jeanne-Claude had a son, Cyril, who is now 55. He’s an environmentalist, speaks many African languages and “is totally involved in saving the world”, says his father. “He can tell you what is wrong in the world, and I have no time to think about what is wrong. I like to do my gratuitous, absolutely not necessary, irrational and useless works of art.”
One thing I’m not sure about, I tell him, is whether he’s concealing something or revealing it when he wraps it. He embarks on an explanation of the history of fabric in art, and eventually says this: “Here is a true story. The French sculptor Rodin had a commission to do the figure of Balzac. In the first version, Balzac was totally naked – big belly, skinny legs and many details. And what he did, Rodin, he took the cape of Balzac, put it in liquid plaster, and shrouded the figure – basically, highlighted the principle proportions of Balzac.
“With our wrapping projects it’s the same. The Reichstag is a Victorian building, with ornaments and decorations, and for 14 days the Reichstag was covered in silver fabric, highlighting the principle proportions of its architecture. But unlike classical sculpture, it was not bronze or wood or marble. It was the real fabric. It was very sensual, very invitational: people came and touched the Reichstag. In London, you don’t see people touching the buildings.”
“So it’s a revelation?” I say.
Christo frowns. “Revelation is too pompous. It’s a way of going beyond what is there.”
We arrive at the island of San Paolo, where Christo has created a kind of beach around the stately home of the island’s only residents. They turn out to be the surviving members of the Beretta family, the oldest manufacturer of arms in the world.
How does he feel about this, I wonder?
They have been very helpful, Christo replies, “but technically we don’t need permission from them – we are renting the water, and they don’t own the water, they own the island”.
The loopholes and legislations of Christo’s work are spectacular in themselves, the product of a special class of mastermind. Their funding – which all comes from sales of his own drawings or other smaller works – has been the subject of a case study compiled by the Harvard Business School. He must be the only renegade artist to have a line of credit from a Swiss bank. And he always takes the precaution of renting the space for miles around any given project, so no one else can piggyback on it.
“Many artists have ideas to do things here,” he explains. “The Three Tenors wanted to sing in front of the wrapped Reichstag. We said no. Claudio Abbado and Maximilian Schell wanted to have the Berlin Philharmonic play Fidelio in the front of the wrapped Reichstag. No, no! Nobody can do anything here. I put all my blood in that project, why would I allow other people to use me?”
“All these works,” he explains, “they are total freedom. Nobody can buy them, nobody can own them, nobody can sell tickets.” They are open to everyone, 24 hours, and there is no charge for entry. They have no ceremonies, no ribbon-cutting, no official paraphernalia whatsoever.
Walking over the water, I understand, through experience, how it works. The piers create a point of view that can never otherwise exist. When Christo’s eight-year-old great-niece Mina joins us from a boat driven by her father, I see in her the freedom he describes. She skips along the pier, hair moving in the wind, and I suddenly realise that what she’s doing should be impossible. To be on The Floating Piers is both a privilege and a violation: a way of defying laws of nature we hadn’t realised we’d accepted so readily.
Back on Monte Isola, we stop for lunch, and our group expands. Vladimir and Mina; Christo’s CEO for this project, Marci Ferrari; the documentary crew; Christo’s official photographer and longtime friend Wolfgang Volz, and Paola Pezzotti, the mayor of Sulzano, all join us at the table.
Here as elsewhere in the course of our day, Christo accumulates well-wishers: congratulations, thanks and requests for photographs come at regular intervals. “Complimenti!” say the locals. “Che onore!”
“Do you speak German?” asks a tourist. “Not really,” says Christo. The man looks indignant. “But you wrapped the Reichstag!”
Christo and Vladimir attempt to convince me that the scene we are looking at provided the backdrop for the Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci came here, they explain; a map he drew of the lake is in the collection of the Queen. He didn’t draw any of the other lakes. “Look!” says Vladimir, Googling the painting on his phone.
I’m a little sceptical.
“Of course, it’s a fantastical landscape,” he says. “But this was his inspiration.”
“And,” adds Christo, “you have to imagine it backwards. Leonardo always painted backwards. Even his handwriting was backwards!”
Meanwhile, the mayor is anxious to know when the project will actually open. “It will be open when it’s open,” says Christo.
“But what time?” she asks.
“Could be anytime,” Vladimir suggests. “Maybe in the morning, maybe in the evening, maybe at midday.”
“No!” begs the mayor, “Mezzogiorno no!” Aghast, she looks around for support, as if to say: these foreigners have no idea how Italians operate.
“Marci,” Christo calls out, “How do you say 'suspense’ in Italian?”
“Suspense,” comes the reply.
By the time we leave the restaurant, dark clouds have gathered. Christo and I make it back to the island edge of the first pier before the downpour begins, then take refuge on a covered platform designed for the workmen.
In this quiet moment, I’m struck by Christo’s unrelentingly constructive nature. Not just literally, of course, in the building of work, but in his attitude to life. Throughout the day, his thoughts have marched on as his body has, accompanied by the breathless sound of his exclamatory speech. Whenever I’ve asked him about something that might have a mournful aspect – Jeanne-Claude’s absence, his experience as a political refugee, his childhood during the war – he has said swiftly, “Life is too short to talk about unpleasant things”, before pointing to something up ahead. “Look! Look how beautiful!” he’d say, about a lapping wave or a ripple in our path.
“Can you imagine making something from scratch without Jeanne-Claude?” I’d asked him at one point. “Is there anything you’re longing to do?” Christo stopped walking. “You’re asking me to think about something that has not yet happened?” he asked, incredulously. “I really have like a block. I don’t like to think about anything except this.”
“How do you feel when the works are over?” I’d said. “Don’t you miss them when they’re gone?” “Of course!” he laughed, before correcting himself. “Not miss them. Jeanne-Claude and myself always liked to return to the site of our projects – almost like returning to the scene of the crime.”
Once, they looked down at some cliffs they’d wrapped in Australia years earlier, and thought they’d been “totally nuts” to have done it. “All these projects are a slice of our lives,” he explained.
My questions weren’t intended to drag him down. Part of the beauty of his designs lies in the fact that they disappear. Time, he had conceded, is one of his materials. And the death of his wife and lifelong collaborator seemed… But of course this was missing the point. Everything around us was a testament to the method he’d devised of keeping her alive. His entire career has been about commitment and continuity.
When each of their projects has been installed, he tells me, “Jeanne-Claude would say: we stay with the work around the clock. We don’t see anybody. We don’t accept any invitations. We enjoy it, because we have only a precious 16 days to be with our 'baby’. There are people doing parties – we never go to these.” And this time, the first on his own, will be the same. “Because it’s so short, I like to be with the work all the time,” he says.
And that, I realise, is what happens when your life is spent making things that will never be repeated. You don’t think about the vanishing. You know there’s not a moment to lose.