A conversation with the environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude

National Geographic spoke with the late, "wrapping" artists in 2006 about the inspiration and challenges behind their iconic work.

This story appeared in the November 2006 issue of National Geographic magazine.

If all goes well, in the summer of 2010, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude will suspend 962 pannels of fabric, seven miles in length, over a 40-mile stretch of the Arkansas River in Colorado's Rocky Mountains. The woven cloth will shimmer like a newly minted dime, reflecting the sky above and the water below. (See pictures from their proposed project.)

All may not go well. The weight of two federal and four state agencies, two counties, several towns, and an opposition group, Rags Over the Arkansas River, presses against the project known as "Over the River." Still, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have contended before with local, state, and federal bureaucracies, protest, and politicians. The eerie "Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin" (1995) took 24 years to be realized. Their most recent work, "The Gates, Central Park, New York City" (2005), 26 years. The shivery apparition of 178 wrapped trees in Switzerland (1998), 32 years. Controversy enriches their art. Controversy is part of the package. Actually, forget that word package. Although wrapping—a woman, a building, a bridge—propelled them to the world's attention, they no longer wrap (not so much as a Christmas gift, she says). They have moved on. These days, landscape is their canvas.

Before the interview, Jeanne-Claude lays out the rules of engagement: ''Ask anything, but we do not talk of religion, politics, or other artists." The couple, born in 1935 on the same day and hour, live in a five-floor loft in New York's SoHo. She sits on a gray couch, lighting up the first of many Larks. Her hair, as red as a chili pepper, flares out like a magnetically charged aura. He, lanky and rumpled in torn jeans and gray fleece sweater, sits on the floor.

How and where did you meet?

Jeanne-Claude: In 1958, in Paris, a young Bulgarian refugee was creating his early works, like wrapped cans, which he was signing with his first name, Christo, but no one wanted to buy them. He had to survive. He washed cars in garages. He washed dishes in restaurants. But the third way was painting portraits of rich people. One day he appeared in the home of my mother and father to paint my mother's portrait. He painted her in classical style, then Impressionist, and by the time in cubist style, we were in love.

Christo: And I am still washing dishes, at home.

Although a collaborator for decades, Jeanne-Claude was not credited as joint artist until 1994. "Surrounded Islands" (1983), 11 islands in Florida's Biscayne Bay swaddled in flamingo pink fabric, was her idea. Christo makes the preparatory sketches. She cannot draw. She does, however, deal with the accountant. He does not.

How do you define yourselves and your work?

J: Labels are important mostly for bottles of wine—but if you need a label, environmental artist is OK. We work in urban and rural environments. Still, the media continue to call us wrapping artists.

C: We borrow space and create gentle disturbances for a few days. We inherit everything that is inherent in the space to become part of the work of art. All our projects are like fabulous expeditions. The story of each project is unique. Our projects have no precedent. And so ...

J: ... the hardest part of each project is to obtain the permits. Afterward, it's pleasure.

But isn't the concept the most difficult part?

J: No, the concept is easy. Any idiot can have a good idea. What is hard is to do it.

"Over the River" began as an image: fabric suspended over water. But fabric over water where? Christo and Jeanne-Claude spent three summers covering 11,000 miles in six states, evaluating 89 rivers before narrowing the choice to six. They selected the Arkansas rivers because its banks were high enough to suspend the fabric panels without impeding the thousands of river rafters expected to course under the canopy. As he talks, Christo's voice accelerates, delivering a litany of statistics. "Running Fence," for example—an 18-foot­high, 24.5-mile-long white nylon fabric fence that snaked through ranch country north of San Francisco—took 42 months, required 59 participating ranchers, 18 public hearings, three sessions in California’s superior courts, and a 450-page environmental impact report, not to mention 240,000 square yards of fabric, 2,050 steel poles, 14,000 earth anchors and … well, you get the idea.

C: Each project has its own character, its personality; you cannot know in advance. So much writing. So much more things. These projects are so complicated...

J: ... and simple at the same time.

C: Understand, we are not masochists: We don't say, "Please give us problems to get the permissions." No. We are working with a lot of elements. And we never do the same thing again. We will never build another "Gates," we will never build another "Running Fence," we will never surround islands. Permits arc built on precedent, but there is no precedent for our work, so this is why we go to a huge amount of explanation.

So where do you start? What's the first step?

C: Themostimportantthingisto ...

J: Wait! Wait! I didn't understand a thing you said. Speak SLOWLY.

Throughout the conversation the two run over each other’s sentences; words collide, correct, contradict, and are compounded by a thick Bulgarian accent (his) and French inflection (hers). More often, it's Jeanne-Claude putting a hand on his arm, interjecting: "Let me explain." He talks in broad gestures, arms waving. She—the counterbalance and center of gravity to his centrifugal force—remains contained, cool.

C: I said, "The... most... important... thing... is... to... find... out... who... owns the land." In this case ["Over the River "], the Bureau of Land Management manages it.

"Over the River," like all their works, is a parry and thrust of anxieties, opposition, an—on the artists' side—explanation, reassurance, and provisions for mitigation.

Tell me some of the concerns this project has evoked and how you have responded to them.

C: For example, a resident says if there is a huge traffic jam and a woman is pregnant, the ambulance cannot take her to the hospital. So we arrange standby helicopters to fly people to the hospital.

J: A ranger shows us a spot along the river and says: "At this place every year someone drowns. We have to be able to rescue." Fine. We don't put fabric there. We skip. The ranger shows us the bighorn sheep's favorite water place. Fine. We skip.

C: If there is a bridge...

J: ... we skip.

C: There are the eagles, the trout...

J: There are no problems. We have the solutions.

C: They are worried where people will sleep. We try to explain, it is not a rock concert. It is a work of art, and our public is different. They imagine people bringing tents. But art collectors don't do that. They will come from Aspen. They will go back to Aspen.

"Over the River" has caused dissension in families as well.

C: A man comes to me screaming, "I never in my life have heard such things at the dinner table. I am fighting with my son." The son wants it. The father does not.

J: What they don't realize is that for the first time they are talking about art. But some say it is not art. They say the river is art. This we have everywhere. We had this with "Gates." They said: "Central Park is the 'Mona Lisa' of landscape. Do not desecrate it."

So opponents compare your projects to painting a mustache on the "Mona Lisa"? What are people really afraid of?

J: People are afraid of the new. They are afraid of what they do not understand. You see it in every science fiction film. There is a flying saucer. The little green man comes out. What do we do? We shoot. Always. We don't talk. We don't try to explain. We shoot.

C: Also, we are not very loved by the professionals. Some museums are not very kind to us because we are outside the art system.

J: You are being too intelligent. I call it jealousy.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude have spent 2.5 million dollars on "Over the River" so far, with no permits in sight. They do not accept any public funding or corporate sponsorship; they finance their work through the sale of his preparatory drawings and early work. They borrow—banks happily accept his art as collateral. Preparatory works sell in the five- and six-figure range; early pieces can go for more. And they own thousands of his pieces, stored in three warehouses in Europe and New York.

And the final cost of "Over the River" will be?

C: Ah, that is another story.

J: It will cost what it will cost.

Plans call for "Over the River" to remain for 14 days before being dismantled and the materials recycled. Likewise, the Reichstag stayed wrapped for 14 days, then the German government, which initially opposed the project, asked for an extension. The artists refused. It was unwrapped as scheduled.

Why only 14 days? Isn't art supposed to be lasting and eternal?

J: Artists of the past have created works in bronze, in marble, in fresco, in oil, even with televisions; they have created works that have been mythological or religious or portraits of landscapes. But there is one quality they have never used, and that is the quality of love and tenderness that we human beings have for what does not last. We have love and tenderness for childhood and for our own lives because we know they will not last. And so we wish our work of art to be once in a lifetime and never again.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are shown six photographs to be published in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC for a story on national parks. The images show the majesty of mountains, rivers, and canyons. There is no running fence, no fabric over river, no wrapped trees in sight. Just pure, spectacular landscape. How, they are asked, can your work improve on this?

C: But our work is not about improvement. It is interpretation. Claude Monet painted the Cathedral of Rouen. One of his paintings is pink, one blue, one yellow. He never says the cathedral is not beautiful. He makes an interpretation of the Cathedral of Roucn. This is art.

J: A young writer tried to argue that we didn't even have to realize the project. We could just do the sketches and create a virtual reality. I said, "Young man, do you have a girlfriend? Have you ever made love to her? Do you make love to a picture or to her?"

The question remains: Why? Why suspend seven miles of fabric over a river? Why surround 11 islands with 722,200 square yards of pink polypropylene? Why hang 7,503 saffron yellow panels in Central Park? Why?

C: All our projects are absolutely irrational with no justification to exist. Nobody needs a running fence or surrounded islands. They are created because Jeanne-Claude and I have this unstoppable urge to create. They are made for us first. Not the public. Artists have a huge white canvas and an indestructible urge to fill it with color. There is no reason. Of course, if Mr. Smith likes the canvas, it's good, but the true artist doesn't make it for Mr. Smith. It is so fragile, so human, so marvelous. The reason we don't like the projects to stay is no one can charge for tickets, no one can buy this project. It is freedom. freedom is the enemy of possession and possession is permanence. These projects are once in a lifetime. It is not like the bombardment of pictures of repetitious things, the globalization of the same imagery—the blockbuster exhibition, the big Olympic Games, the same thing over and over. Humans, unique themselves, like to be in the presence of the unique. When a project is realized, the joy, the beauty makes for total awe and everything else looks trivial and banal.

So far, 19 of your projects have been completed; 37 have failed to be realized. You still have many obstacles to overcome before "Over the River" can go forward. How long will you work to see this project come to life?

J: Until our teeth fall out.

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