Christo and Jeanne-Claude (Part 2)

BY Arts Desk  September 24, 2009 at 5:04 PM EST

This is the second-part of a two part series. Click here to read the first dispatch.

I met Christo and Jeanne-Claude outside of Texas Creek, Colo., near one their eight installation sites (pending approval of several public agencies, of course). Fifty miles from Denver, and 90 miles from the nearest metropolitan area, the Arkansas River is nonetheless the most commercially rafted waterway in the United States (earlier that morning, several inflatable kayaks were scudding atop the pewter water that runs along U.S. 50). At least three ecosystems converge in the 40-mile stretch between the towns of Salida and Canon City — semiarid gulches to the north, limestone cornices in the canyon itself and 14,000-foot ramparts to the south. When I asked Christo and Jeanne-Claude if ‘Over the River’ would register the topography of the canyon, Christo seemed surprised by the suggestion that there was a difference between his installation and the surrounding wilderness. “The work of art is not the fabric and the cables,” he told me. “It’s the whole thing together.”

When accused of staging extravaganzas — “in some ways comparable to the film spectacles of Cecil B. De Mille,” according to art critic David Bourbon — Christo invariably replies that his projects are not meant to be practical; that they “exist not because some corporate executive likes to have them, or some president of a republic, or some senators,” he explained while standing on a sandy bluff overlooking the river in early July, but “because artists like to have them.

“All our life, we are confronted with justifying actions. ‘You will live better.’ ‘You will eat better.’ ‘You will be slimmer.’ ‘You will be healthier.’ And this project is here without justification, like a poem….”

“It is in the human nature all over the world to be afraid of the unknown,” Jeanne-Claude told me. “People are afraid of what they don’t understand. You go to the movies, you see science fiction movies, the little green men with antennae… and what do we humans do, immediately? We shoot him. It’s the first reaction. There are some intelligent scientists around in the film who say, ‘no, no, no, wait! We’ve got to talk to them. We have to know what it is about, where they come from, what other planet they visited first.’ So we try to tell them what other planet we visited first, like we did with ‘Wrapped Reichstag,’ ‘Running Fence’ and ‘Valley Curtain.’ But their reaction is a natural one.”

“Sometimes our opponents are much bigger. The chancellor of Germany, Mr. Kohl, was against the ‘Reichstag’ project, and we defeated him in the Parliament of Germany,” added Christo. He stood with his hand resting on the scabbed trunk of a Ponderosa pine, while Jeanne-Claude fumbled in her pocketbook for a cigarette. As semi-trucks hurtled past on U.S. 50, kicking dirt onto the bleached scrubs along the river bank, I wondered aloud why he categorizes his projects as “not make-believe.”

“All of our projects are involved with the physical experience … here, it is a work of art where you physically need to walk, take to the water, need to be wet, need to be in the sun, need to make some kind of effort. We are contemplating art in very septic conditions — you go to museums, they smell nice, it’s polite, you talk slowly… you are not involved with this incredible physicality of real space.”

As he spoke, the artists’ coterie of engineers, PR specialists and assistants waited in the cool interior of a white Suburban. After a few more questions, Christo and Jeanne-Claude politely excused themselves to attend another open house, to keep advocating for the project they hope will one day materialize.