Christo Javacheff has passed away. We all have in our heads some of his installations: gigantic gift-wrapped buildings like the Bundestag or Paris’ Pont Neuf, a sea of umbrellas spread out across the Japanese landscape or Central Park, fabric halos on islands off the coast of Florida or colorful corridors in an Italian lake… The press hailed him as a “romantic entrepreneur” and of course the commercial logic of his projects was undeniable although it took decades to be noticed by investors. The question is, was it “art”?
Christo’s biography is a true portrait and confession of what “art” has been since the end of the Second World War. He was born in Bulgaria, the son of the director of a paint factory and of a local intellectual who guided him towards art since his childhood. He was trained in stalinist Bulgaria and soon moved to Prague where he worked on sets and scenery. The Hungarian revolution of ’56 convinced him to leave the stalinist bloc to become a penniless refugee first in Vienna and then in Paris. Taking portraits of tourists in the street, he meets a lady from the French upper class, wife of a French military high command, who “adopts” him. Her daughter, Jeanne-Claude, becomes his partner, associate and driving force. She confesses to him her fascination for a piece by Man Ray: a sewing machine covered in a sheet. She will be the one who will drive him for the next fifty years and will encourage him to “scale up” his fantasy and to approach his works as major interventions on the natural or urban landscape.
From Art to the plastic business model
The first “proof of concept” will be in Australia in 1969. Objective: an investment of half a million dollars of the time to wrap two kilometers of coast. A success. It would follow a giant fence in California, a valley in Colorado, small Florida Keys… costs rise with success and reach their peak from the nineties with their great successes, from the Bundestag to Abhu Dabi, via Paris and Japan.
There is now a certain vindication of Jeanne-Claude. It’s fair, she was the real entrepreneur. She “saw” the product. And it was capital-intensive, not only because of the physical costs and the amount of labor power, but because of the thousand bureaucratic procedures needed and the hundreds of permits that each project would require. The result, of course, was not for a museum, but for television. What Jeanne-Claude discovered from Christo’s idea was not Art, it was a new business model that surpassed the old cage of galleries. A type of “creation” that intensively required capital and offered states and administrations something they could easily understand: minutes of television, “modernity” and tourist promotion.
Neither Jeanne Claude nor Christo wanted to waste a single euro. They made it clear and insisted for years to everyone who wanted to listen to them: their works had no meaning at all. They did not seek “interpreters”, they did not need any poetic justification. They were what they were and above all they were, as they also insisted, ephemeral, objects of instant consumption created to be dismantled immediately and recycled in the next project, every cost-cutting increased profits.
Nothing is as far from the meaning of the concept of Art as Christo. We do not know of anyone whose perception of the world was changed by the aesthetic experience of one of his works. Nor did Christo and Jeanne pretend to do so, as they said openly. Unable to recognize it, some critics today talk about how poetic it was to highlight buildings or landscapes by hiding them.
They obviate the comparison with Man Ray’s work which Christo used as inspiration. Man Ray’s sewing machine was neither innocent nor banal. The main difference between a sewing machine and the Bundestag or the Pont Neuf is not one of scale. It is of nature. The machine used to work in the workshop or in the home, does not transmute itself into a power structure, public works or natural accident. Man Ray’s poetry is such because it has meaning. Because it reminds us that what society attempts to hide is still there even if we cover it up with a dusty sheet. Christo’s is a boutade: to trivialize the presence of the powerful and the omnipresent… for the greater television glory of political power and investors.
And yet, his absolute emptiness, his use of monstrous scales as a way of attracting capital, his pecuniary greed – only comparable in impudence to Dalí – his total, absolute and voluntary renunciation of signifying the slightest contribution to those who contemplate his works, is in itself a faithful, hyper-realistic even, portrait of the spirit of the ruling classes of his time. Classes of which he was a part from his birth. That is why Christo is a paradox. It’s not art, no. But its essence is so sterile and dead that it represents like few others the anti-human, anti-historical character of the system in our times. Bunting or tarp cover included.