Christo in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist
For The London Mastaba, the idea of the lake originates from early drawings. In 1967 I made two or three studies for a floating mastaba, one of which ...
December 2017, New York
HUO: How did you first come to art?
CHRISTO: I was born in 1935, in Gabrovo, a town in the Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria. My mother was Macedonian and my father was half Bulgarian, half Czech. I bear the name of my mother’s father, a freedom fighter who was arrested and executed by the Turks during the Balkan Wars 1912–13. My mother and her family escaped by walking to the border between Greece and Bulgaria, arriving in Sofia later that year. She always had a great love of art and was a secretary at the National Academy of Arts in Bulgaria. She met my father, a chemist and engineer, and they got married in 1930. She embraced all art forms and encouraged my brothers and I to be involved with visual and performing arts. The war began in the early 1940s and the country was bombarded by the American and British forces. I remember vividly that many artists, writers and actors evacuated Sofia and came to Gabrovo. From the age of six or seven I was not only going to school but also having private lessons with some of these artists. I was making scale models and paintings. Instead of having piano or violin lessons I was learning directly from artists. At 17 I began my studies at the National Academy of Arts, which was very conservative and based on the German art school model, involving eight years of study to become a painter, sculptor or architect. In the first four years we covered all disciplines, including anatomy. Like nineteenth-century artists we not only studied with live models and plaster casts, but we went to the hospital to see dissections.
HUO: Live anatomical studies?
CHRISTO: Yes. And at this time the Communists came into power and my father was accused of being a Capitalist and an enemy of the people and was prosecuted. It was a difficult time for me because the Academy was primarily reserved for privileged people of the Communist regime. I grew up in this suffocating society, where terrible things were happening. This is why I have never returned to Bulgaria since I left in 1956.
I didn’t understand why my work was not like anyone else’s at the Academy. When I escaped to the West, after just four years of my studies, I had not settled on my artistic discipline. And even today, I would assert that I have still not decided, because the wrapping of the Reichstag was a form of architecture. Paul Goldberger, an architectural critic for The New York Times rather than an art writer, came to review this work in Berlin. To read Jeanne-Claude’s and my work is to read it on that level. It is not painting or sculpture, it is many things, which goes beyond the senses we have for reading painting, sculpture or modern art today.
HUO: Your works are also a form of urbanism, because they change the surroundings within which they are sited.
CHRISTO: Urbanism, yes, that’s a bigger project! In 1956 I was 21 and studying at the art academy in Sofia. Like all students, I had obligatory military service, including one month of boot camp during the summer. That summer, when I was not at boot camp, I visited my relatives in Prague, which coincided with the time of the Hungarian Uprising in Budapest. Even though Czechoslovakia was also a Communist country, it was difficult to travel to. There I saw modern art for the first time. Prior to that I had only seen reproductions of works by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin in Sofia in the home of the French Consul when I made portraits of his family. From Czechoslovakia I crossed into Austria illegally; it was a dangerous journey. In order to get to Paris, I was advised that I should first travel to Geneva where the United Nations headquarters for refugees was located. I arrived in Geneva in October 1957 and began to make portraits of officials, signed with my family name, Javacheff. I met a noble family who commissioned me later, in 1958, to paint a private chapel in Corsica. I love architecture and I had been to Marseilles to see Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation apartments that same year.
HUO: So, you’ve painted a chapel, like Jean Cocteau or Henri Matisse. Is the chapel still there?
CHRISTO: Yes. It was very El Greco! It is signed ‘Christo’.
HUO: It’s like a Cubist El Greco! I’m always interested in when the catalogue raisonné of an artist begins. What is your ‘first’ work?
CHRISTO: I’m not like some artists who refuse to acknowledge their earliest work; I think all my work is legitimate. It is all part of what I have done in my life. My works are signed with a different name, though. It is like some great writers who want to write literature, but to make a living they write a detective story. In a similar way, my portraits were the detective story. While in Geneva, I had made portraits for hairdressers and their wealthy clients. I made it to Paris in March 1958. I was introduced to Jacques Dessange in Paris, who asked me to paint Brigitte Bardot. This is how I met Jeanne-Claude, when I painted her mother.
HUO: And in Paris you made your first works signed ‘Christo’. How did your work shift from portraits to sculptures made from cans and barrels? I’m interested because the cans mark the starting point of our exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries.
CHRISTO: Yes, I was making portraits, but alongside all kinds of other works, I was drawing, making landscapes and scale models. I used existing objects, cans or bottles and covered them with canvas to create structural forms. I used fabric because I could not afford to work in clay, wood or steel. When combined with lacquer and sand the fabric became a very sturdy, sculptural surface. Before this time I was also making works on a flat surface with my Cratères series.
HUO: It is so interesting to learn that the scarcity of materials led to your work with fabric at this time. This then led to the wrapping, for which you are so well known.
CHRISTO: Yes, fabric was a very convenient material. Using cloth is not necessarily only wrapping, but also covering things. I even covered flat planes in my Surfaces d’Empaquetage works. The cans are collectively titled Inventory. It comes from when you move to a new house and place things in the corner or on shelves. There’s something old about these early cans and packages; they are very visceral. They are not industrially packaged. It probably has to do with escaping, carrying things, bundles or going home. They are in transition, objects about to go somewhere else.
HUO: It is connected to migration.
CHRISTO: I always use the French word miserabilist to describe them: they are dirty, not fancy. Of course, it is very natural for small objects to grow into bigger objects. The barrels developed from the little cans.
HUO: Can you tell me about when the work transitioned from cans to barrels? There is a famous photograph of your Paris studio, with many barrels creating a total environment.
CHRISTO: Yes, they were closely packed in, but the barrels are also very textured. You can see many references within them; Jean Dubuffet is in there. The photo is from my studio in Gentilly, a southern suburb of Paris. I rented a garage from my friend Jan Voss to store the barrels for the installation on the Rue Visconti. I had a nomadic life, I was doing different projects from two studios. Paris was terrible for space, you know.
HUO: Paris was at this time a cultural hub for artists and thinkers in Europe. How did you meet Pierre Restany, the French art critic and philosopher who coined the movement Nouveau Réalisme? Who else were your peers at this time?
CHRISTO: A Russian painter living in Paris called Anna Staritsky, whom my mother knew from Bulgaria, introduced me to Pierre Restany, who was of course very critical of my work. I did not fit into Nouveau Réalisme because I was arranging too much in my work. I was wrapping objects, I was deciding how things would be made, my work was not ready-made enough. Of course, at that age I would have loved to join the group, but they refused. Dieter Rosenkranz, the son of my father’s friend, loved contemporary art and music. In the summer of 1958 he invited me to spend a weekend at his home in Wuppertal, where I met John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Nam June Paik, who was at that time not a visual artist, but a composer.
HUO: Was this when you met the artist Mary Bauermeister?
CHRISTO: Yes, and it was through this connection with Mary that my first solo exhibition of barrels and wrapped objects took place at Galerie Haro Lauhus, Cologne, in 1961.
HUO: How did you arrive at the idea of making columns out of barrels?
CHRISTO: Columns were a very natural form to create. I made columns for the Cologne exhibition and some sculptures.
HUO: So among the vertically stacked barrels there is another series of columns?
CHRISTO: Yes, using fabric and a wooden spoke. It is like Alberto Giacometti. In fact, I visited his studio.
HUO: Yes, the surfaces of the barrels have a relationship to painting, such as to Dubuffet. Were you also thinking about Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column?
CHRISTO: No, not so much. More and more, you can see how I was moving outside of the gallery space. In the Cologne exhibition the first room was like a storefront on the street. In the window there were small black objects; in the first room there was a big column of barrels and packages on the walls. The back wall of the second room was lined with barrels. At this time, I was still a political refugee; in fact, I lived stateless for 17 years. Europe was unstable and I feared the Soviets would take me back to Bulgaria. I was in Germany the summer when the Berlin Wall was built. This is why I built the wall in the Cologne exhibition in August 1961, and the following month I made the proposal for the Rue Visconti – to install the Iron Curtain in a Parisian street. Jeanne-Claude and I also made a temporary installation called Stacked Oil Barrels and Dockside Packages at the Port Authority on the River Rhine in Cologne for people to see our work even when the gallery was closed. With heavy tarpaulin, we covered industrial rolls of paper and we used machinery to stack oil drums into large structures. This was the first collaboration between Jeanne-Claude and myself, the first outdoor work we made.
HUO: The second public temporary sculpture was The Iron Curtain – Wall of Barrels, Rue Visconti, Paris. You worked for eight hours on the evening of 27 June 1962 in order to block this road with a wall of 89 barrels. It was an ‘art barricade’.
CHRISTO: At that moment, Paris was full of violence. There was the Algerian War of Independence, and there were barricades that were stopping people in the streets. There was violence and killings, and in 1961 there was a massacre at an Algerian demonstration.
HUO: Did you stop the traffic on Rue Visconti?
CHRISTO: Yes. The traffic stopped in the street. We asked for official permission but it was denied. I finally did it illegally. The police arrived and asked us to remove it, which we did.
HUO: You just did it, so you took an enormous risk.
CHRISTO: Yes, I take risks all the time. I also built Running Fence at the Pacific Ocean illegally. Journalists, especially in America, have a sacred image of everything legal and when I say that I escaped from a Communist country, they ask ‘Illegally?’, and I reply, ‘Yes, I bribed the customs officer to escape.’ ‘You really escaped illegally?’ I tell you, they are shocked I broke the law!
HUO: You and Jeanne-Claude moved to New York in 1964. Can you tell me about the wall of barrels you wanted to install at MoMA, the scale model of which will be in the exhibition? How did this proposal come about?
CHRISTO: We became close friends with Bill Rubin, a curator at MoMA. He was organising an exhibition called Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage for 1968 and he identified that there would be two weeks when the museum would be closed during the installation. This is when we proposed to build a wall of barrels on 53rd Street for one day. We started working on the permission in 1967 and made a scale model of 53rd Street and the entrance of the museum, but the project never came to fruition.
HUO: To return to the barrels, you had begun to stack them, not only to create walls but also three-dimensional forms. You made many different arrangements of the barrels, including for the Suez Canal. How did you arrive at the idea of The Mastaba?
CHRISTO: The first mastaba sculpture used 1,204 barrels; it was in 1968 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, where I had a solo exhibition. The earliest urban civilisation, 8,000 years ago, was in Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq. It is thought that the first cities with streets and houses were built here. In front of these houses they built banks to sit, and that bank or bench is called a mastaba. It is defined by two vertical walls, two slanted walls and a flat top.
HUO: It’s a stone or earth bench made as part of the exterior of a house.
CHRISTO: Exactly. That is before the Egyptians used the same word to describe tombs, which is not the meaning I am interested in. Bedouin people know about the mastaba; it is still a term used in the Middle East, where I plan to build my largest mastaba sculpture. The form can be created by stacking barrels horizontally as the angles of the sloped sides naturally achieve 60 degrees. Dominique and John de Menil collected our works in America and suggested the idea of creating something in Texas. We proposed to build a mastaba between Houston and Galveston in 1969. We never succeeded with the Houston Mastaba, nor with a mastaba we tried to build in the parking lot of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo in the Netherlands in 1970. This was despite the support of the director Rudi Oxenaar and Martin Visser’s large donation of our works to the collection.
HUO: After these unsuccessful attempts to place a mastaba in the landscape, the plans in Abu Dhabi increased greatly in scale and ambition. It’s interesting because you studied architecture; the mastaba is a form of architecture.
CHRISTO: Wrapped Reichstag and The Pont Neuf Wrapped are also both architectural structures. Much of art involves architecture. In 1977 I made the first drawings for The Mastaba for Abu Dhabi. We first visited this newly formed nation in 1979 on a trip organised by the French Foreign Office and we loved the landscape and knew that the structure would be huge.
HUO: When you look at the flat surfaces of The Mastaba for Abu Dhabi model, it’s similar to a digital pixilation, even though it was painted by hand. It was made many years before the digital age.
CHRISTO: I made the model of The Mastaba for Abu Dhabi in 1979 and it is exactly how we imagine the structure to be built. Many years later, in order to create a feasibility study on the project, we hired two architectural students who took two months to pinpoint the ten colours on the model. How many reds? How many yellows? How many blues? Each row and each barrel colour needed to be put in order, from left to right, like a pointillist painting.
HUO: The Mastaba is a composition on painting and colour. The colours in all your works fascinate me. In a way, it entered your sculptures very early on. Your first can and barrel works are characterised by discolouration and have a patina, which you have referred to as miserablism. The strength of colour is important; you have said that when you needed to perfectly control the composition of a sculpture that you chose new barrels, and in other cases you wanted to suggest time and fatigue, and then you selected old barrels. So, there is a difference between old and new barrels.
CHRISTO: With the early works, I never thought of buying new barrels; they were readily available. There is so much colour in all my works, all the time. The old barrels have a rust texture; that is colour also. In Rue Visconti, we used the barrels as they were, in their original colours, even with the labels. It was very simple. These early works used the industrial, ready-made colours; they were not chosen.
HUO: Will the barrels for Abu Dhabi be regular industrial barrels?
CHRISTO: Yes, but they will be fabricated specifically for the work. The proportion of the distinctive shape of the mastaba is 2 : 3 : 4. This ratio is beautiful, but it’s very difficult to explain its effects. If you were to stand at the centre of one of the two 60-degree sloping walls of the Abu Dhabi Mastaba, the vastness means that you will not see the other sides of the sculpture. You would only see a 150-metre-high metal stairway leading to the sky. This is why the pyramid is a completely different shape from The Mastaba. When you see The Mastaba at different angles, you can experience the dynamic forces and thrust of the form, which is not present with a pyramid.
HUO: So, how many barrels will be used for this work?
CHRISTO: The entire project comprises 410,000 barrels of ten colours, the exact order of which has all been determined.
HUO: Beautiful. It seems to me that this work is connected very closely to light, the light of the desert. You have said: ‘It’s amazing. At dawn, the vertical wall becomes gold. There are so many pictures taken by my friend Wolfgang Volz from the same angle at sunset and sunrise, and the view of The Mastaba is completely different. It keeps changing according to the sun’s pass.’ So, this idea that the work is never the same twice, that it changes in the light, is very poetic.
CHRISTO: Yes, we wanted to position it to catch the different directions of the sunlight from sunrise to sunset.
HUO: How do The Mastaba’s colours and geometric form relate to Islamic mosaics?
CHRISTO: The two frontal, flat walls are very much like a pointillist painting. The colour of the frontal walls has a connection to Islamic architecture, which has a similar abstraction of colour and form. The project in the UAE has involved many years of discussion – the planning and requirements of the project are very complex. We need to reserve 16 square kilometres of land around The Mastaba that cannot be changed. The main challenge is to keep it untouched. We would like to keep the surrounding landscape as part of the project.
HUO: I always believed that art leads us to transcendence, and in a way the desert already leads us there. The Sudanese artist Ibrahim el-Salahi said they would go to the desert to have transcendental experiences.
CHRISTO: All religions are born in the desert. The emptiness and grandness of the desert gives us space to think.
HUO: Let’s talk about London. Your exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries will take place during the summer of 2018 and the project will expand across the park to the lake with a new temporary sculpture, The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake). This will be the first mastaba to be situated within a natural landscape. We invited you to create a project with us after we visited The Floating Piers on Lake Iseo, Italy. Walking along the piers surrounded by water and the Italian landscape was an extraordinary transcendental experience. You came to the Galleries in October 2016 to deliver a lecture at the Serpentine Miracle Marathon, where you spoke passionately about The Mastaba for Abu Dhabi. That day we walked together through the park and when crossing the Serpentine Bridge, which connects our two galleries, you focused immediately on the water and had an epiphany to situate a floating mastaba on the lake. How do you choose a particular location for a public work and how did you arrive at this idea for Hyde Park?
CHRISTO: For The London Mastaba, the idea of the lake originates from early drawings. In 1967 I made two or three studies for a floating mastaba, one of which was for Lake Michigan. This was never realised. Of course, this project in London is an incredible opportunity to do something that is so different from anything else. The public space of the Serpentine Lake can be well controlled and the other temporary mastabas I’ve built have been smaller. This sculpture for London is bigger. It is the same ratio proportions of 2 : 3 : 4 as The Mastaba for Abu Dhabi. Professor Michael Schlaich and his team, our engineers – the same engineers who designed The Mastaba for Abu Dhabi – and the English contractors working on the project for London, constructed a life-sized section of The London Mastaba in the Black Sea in the summer of 2017 as a technical test.
HUO: The London Mastaba is, as with all your projects, funded entirely by you. Measuring 20 metres in height, the sculpture will comprise 7,506 horizontally stacked barrels, specifically fabricated and painted in shades of red, white, blue and mauve. It will be approached from many vantage points in the park and the colours will reflect and play with the mirrored surface of the lake. The exhibition at the Galleries will bring together the variations of barrel works you have made: sculptures, works on paper and scale models. Drawing is an integral part of your practice. At what point do you create these? Do they always function as preparatory exercises or do they serve a practical purpose?
CHRISTO: I have been making drawings for London! I make models because I like to do them. I never make drawings and models after the project is realised. They’re always done before.
HUO: This is your first big project in London. What is your connection and history with London?
CHRISTO: I first came to London in 1963 to visit Charles Wilp, a commercial photographer and a collector of my work. I had wrapped a naked woman in his studio in Düsseldorf. Charles also had a house in London and we came to film Wrapped Woman in his studio here.
HUO: You mean you wrapped a person – like a living sculpture?
CHRISTO: Exactly. In the early 1960s we loved London and had our first exhibition with Annely Juda Fine Art on Tottenham Mews in 1971. I met David Juda at documenta IV in Kassel when I made 5,600 Cubicmeter Package, an inflatable sculpture.
HUO: This is why our exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries is so significant, because it is your first major museum show in London in many decades.
CHRISTO: Our first museum exhibition in London was in 1979 at the Institute of Contemporary Art. This new exhibition is very important. I love London.
HUO: You say that there are politics in your projects and, of course, Rue Visconti in 1962 is an important example. Can you tell me more about the relationship between politics and your work?
CHRISTO: Today I think that some contemporary art is often an illustration of politics. We deal with real politics, with real parliaments debating whether to grant permission for our works. That is politics and this is why I refute artists who claim to talk about politics, when actually they make illustrations of politics. I deal with real life, the real wind, real water, the real kilometre and real politics, talking to presidents, prime ministers or rulers. It’s there, real politics.
HUO: I am curious about this notion of the unrealised project, how you differentiate between works that have been realised and those yet to come. Of course, The Mastaba for Abu Dhabi is still an unrealised project which you are working towards.
CHRISTO: In 50 years, 47 projects were not realised compared to 23 that were. Many projects were refused permission from the authorities, and for some we lost interest after the refusal and did not want to pursue them further. For some projects we have an idea, we’ll find a site or multiple possibilities, and for some the sites are decided – like Central Park, the Reichstag or the Pont Neuf. For The Mastaba the site began in Texas, moved to Holland, and then finally we chose the desert in UAE. We hope for it to be realised. I’m very optimistic, you know, I’m an eternal optimist! The same thing occurred with The Floating Piers. We started in Argentina with a project for Rio de la Plata, then in Tokyo Bay with The Daiba Project, and many years later the concept came to Lake Iseo, Italy.
HUO: It goes back to the beginning of the interview. The migration, the idea migrates. Besides The Mastaba for Abu Dhabi, do you have other unrealised projects you still want to realise?
CHRISTO I have ideas that I want to realise, but I cannot tell you right now! I have at least two ideas, three ideas probably, to do things. The concept does not connect to a particular place. I can tell you one thing now: I will always refuse to make retrospective exhibitions. I will never spend a minute of my life looking at what is in the past. I would also never agree to do the same thing again. Imagine we were to do another Gates, in another park, in another city around the world; it would be so boring because we know how to do it.
HUO: So, you never repeat?
CHRISTO: No, and this is why we like to do the projects we’ve never done. This is why The Mastaba is exciting for London and for Abu Dhabi. New ideas are very exciting. This is something I enjoy tremendously.
HUO: Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a book of advice to a young poet. What would be your advice to a young artist?
CHRISTO: Myself and Jeanne-Claude would never judge other artists; who are we to judge somebody? Art is an extremely personal thing. Art is not a profession; art is existence. It is not a nine-to-five job! In art, you live everything. So I cannot give advice. The only thing you should do in art is to think and question what it is that you like to do and do it. The biggest problem is to find what you like to do!
HUO: Do you have a definition of art? Gerhard Richter says, ‘Art is the highest form of hope.’ What is art for you?
CHRISTO: Art is incredibly enjoyable. I enjoy the things that I do so much! Fortunately, what I am doing is not a traditional studio practice. It’s very rich and, probably, this is the secret: We see so many people outside of the art world; from Japanese rice farmers, parliamentarians and engineers, to all kinds of bureaucrats. We are deeply involved with society – real society and community, not an illustration of society. It is very enchanting.
Interview published in Ed. S. Philippi, Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958–2018, TASCHEN, Cologne, 2018, pp. 8–13.