Christo & Jeanne-Claude, mastabas and freedom

 Saint-Paul-De-Vence  |  23 July 2016  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

For almost 50 years, Christo & Jeanne-Claude have used confrontation or dissimulation as a tool to charge places with new meanings. Until 27 November 2016, they exhibit a mastaba of nearly 1,000 barrels in the courtyard Giacometti of the Maeght foundation (France). From June 18 to July 3 2016, the Floating Piers (2014-2016) were visible on the lake Iséo (Italy). The artist has talked with Art Media Agency about these projects.

What is the history of the mastaba that you are currently displaying in the courtyard of the Maeght foundation?
Everything started in 1967. Jeanne-Claude and myself were already in New York. The director of the Kunsthalle de Berne, Harald Szeemann, organized an exhibition ‘‘Living Art. 1965-1968’’ in the Maeght foundation, which had just been inaugurated in 1964. He invited me to create a temporary work — at the time I was preparing the wrapping for the Kunsthalle Bern, our first public wrapping that we finally created in 1968. For the Maeght foundation, I proposed to Harald Szeemann to wrap the trees and create a mastaba in the courtyard

I created the wrapping of the trees but not the mastaba. In 2014, during the 50th anniversary of the Maeght foundation, Olivier Kaeppelin exhibited the artists who had made the history of the foundation and he found several early drawings of the mastaba project of 1967. He then invited me to realize the project, and I accepted with great pleasure.

The exhibition is interesting because it echoes the mastaba with the work that we had conducted on barrels which started at the end of the 1950s, and continued when we blocked the rue Visconti  (Wall of Oil Barrels, 1962), then later with projects of mastabas in Texas, Holland, and ultimately in Abu Dhabi.

There is a genealogy of the barrel in your work, from the Wrapped Cans in 1958 to the barrels, first in a sculptural vision then in larger projects.
Yes, everything started with the paint cans that I wrapped with a laquered canvas, in a pure idea of sculpture. I pursued this work in wrapping barrels. I later worked with the barrels in a larger dimension, starting in 1962, in blocking the rue Visconti. It was an ironic response to the edification of the Berlin wall, but also of our first construction in a public space.

One often finds the form of the mastaba in your work, starting in the 1960s.
The mastaba is an old geometric form, first seen in Mesopotamia in the first urban civilizations, about 7000 years ago. The mastaba (the term means bench in Arab) were small edifices in the ground with slanted sides. They served as benches, often places in front of dignitaries homes. Much later, the mastabas became funeral edifices.

More practically speaking, we obtain the form of the mastaba by layering cylindrical objects, like barrels that we use. The layering creates a 60° angle which builds this form, a rectangular base with two slanted sides, two vertical walls and a truncated summit.

At the end of the 1960s, we wanted to create a mastaba in Texas, but the project was aborted, for lack of authorization. Following that, we tried to do it in Holland in the beginning of the 1970s. Ultimately, we have promoted the project in Abu Dhabi since 1973. The dimensions of the mastaba are imposing, because it should be 150 meters high, 225 meters deep and 300 meters wide, a construction comprised of 400,000 barrels.

You want to create the largest sculpture in the world with the mastaba in Abu Dhabi and your projects are often enormous. 
You know, my projects are large only because they are useless. They have no function, the world can go round without them. Men make things that are much larger: airports, buildings, bridges.

My projects are only big because they are works of art.

Many of your projects are ephemeral. What happens to them afterward?
We recycle them. When we made The Gates (1979 – 2005) in Central Park, we had to install 7,500 gates that were 5 meters high. That represented 5,000 tons of steel, or two thirds of the steel for the Eiffel Tower. We purchased the steel, and before even the gates were made, we had succeeded in selling it to a Chinese company.

We work as artists in a capitalist world. Our work is also to conform to the world.

And in addition, you finance your own installations.
Yes I accept neither financial aid nor donations. We finance our installations with the money we earn from the sale of my preparatory drawings. All of that has but one objective: to maintain our artistic freedom.

Floating Piers was your last project to be brought to life.
The Floating Piers were a long walk of three kilometers on floating docks, on the Lake Iseo in Italy. The project goes back to the 1970s. We created some projects for specific places. That was the case for Pont Neuf (The Pont Neuf Wrapped, 1975-85) or the Reichstag (Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-95). For the Floating Piers, we had a concept, but we still had to find a place where we would be granted the authorization. First, we attempted to conduct the project in Argentina, in the Rio de la Plata estuary, facing Buenos Aires, but we didn’t obtain permission.

Following that, we tried in Tokyo Bay in Japan, because we had museums and collectors who supported us there. That didn’t work any better. It was at that point that we decided to return to Italy. Lake Iseo is very particular because it contains the largest lake-bound island in Italy. There is no bridge on this island, the inhabitants have always gotten there by boat. For the first time, they were able to walk to the continent.

To do this, we put in place an ingenious structure, very far from the initial project, composed of 220,000 polyethylene cubes.

This project cost me €16 million.

In 50 years, you have created 22 projects and 37 have been abandoned. 
I have no regret concerning the projects that did not succeed. If the projects did not succeed, it is because we had lost our interest; we didn’t want them anymore. Why constrain yourself? Art is not necessary, it has no reason to exist other than to be art. That is why art and freedom are so closely linked. Nothing should have to be justified, it simply answers an irrepressible need to be created.

Each project has its own history, and for some, we had to attempt several times before succeeding, in the case of the Reichstag for example. The stubbornness and willpower is the work, as much as the work itself.

There is nothing more important than the freedom of the artist.

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