Julian Flanagan logo

Christo and Jeanne Claude at Tate Modern, The FT Weekend

‘Jeanne-Claude sits erect, open, genially intimidating. Christo sits back, gnomic, more forgiving.’

An art world crowd of T-shirted students, academics sporting scatty haircuts and smooth-suited men almost fills the Tate Modern’s 250-seat Starr Auditorium. Engulfed in crimson – ceiling, walls, seats, floor – we await the famous wrap artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

They wrapped Berlin’s Reichstag in silver cloth and the Pont Neuf in Paris in gold. They surrounded 11 Florida islands in floating pink fabric; erected thousands of umbrellas simultaneously in California and Japan; and built The Gates – saffron banner walkways through New York’s Central Park. Their next project: suspending seven and a half miles of blue cloth over Colorado’s Arkansas River. These meticulously engineered “earthworks” only appear for weeks, yet gaining planning approval can take decades.

US citizens now, Jeanne-Claude and Christo (who use only their first names) were born in France and Bulgaria, respectively, at the same hour on June 13 1935, and married in 1958. They make a modest, smiling entrance. Christo sits in jeans and stone-grey camping jacket, head on hand, grey hair swept back, gazing fondly at Jeanne-Claude. She stands centre-stage in a chic striped jacket and lavender blouse, her frizzy russet hair an artwork itself.

“We will answer any questions,” says Jeanne-Claude. “Nothing is too personal. Past works, future works but not religion, no politics, no generalities and, of course, not about other artists.”

But first, slides. Christo flicks rapidly through images of their projects and his artworks of them. Arms waving, he lists rather too many facts in a thick Bulgarian accent. “We installed 1,340 blue omburellas in Japan and 1,760 yellow omburellas in California. Each omburella was 20 feet tall, 29 feet in diameter, involving land in Japan about 12 miles long and three and a half miles wide. In California… “

Jeanne-Claude’s near-luminous hair and Christo’s camping jacket pop up in slide after slide of town approval meetings. Christo adds deadpan comments. “Salida is a small city mostly occupied by senior-citizen hippies.” Some slides evoke gasps of audience joy: saffron gates in Central Park; winter trees wrapped in gossamer cloth in Basel.

Next they sit side-by-side, Jeanne-Claude the question mistress. “Courageous person first question? Yes!” “Courageous person” asks why their earthworks appear so briefly and gets a touching, though dubious, answer. “There is one quality artists have never used, the quality of love and tenderness we humans have for things that do not last.” (No artists? Ever?) We love childhood and life itself because they won’t last. To fully enjoy their fleeting art, “You have to be there, you have to walk it or touch it.”

For a jolly 80 minutes, questions roll. While one answers, the other prompts in whispers, or interrupts to correct a fact. Jeanne-Claude sits erect, open, genially intimidating. Christo sits back, gnomic, more forgiving. They gesture in tandem, Jeanne-Claude precisely, Christo wildly.

Is the approval process part of the art? Jeanne-Claude: “The process is part of the work of art but it is not the aim. The nine-month pregnancy of a woman is an extremely important process but it is not the aim.”

Do they accept sponsors? Christo: Something unintelligible. Jeanne-Claude: “Christo said with a Bulgarian accent. I’m going to repeat it with a French accent. We accept no sponsors, ever.” Their projects are financed by selling Christo’s artworks. (Surprisingly, as The Gates alone was said to cost $21m.)

What appeals about fabric? Christo: Its tactual nature and dynamism, “All our projects move all the time – they are like a living object.” Who has the ideas? Jeanne-Claude: “We do everything together and it is not important who has the idea. Any idiot can have an idea. What is important is to do it. We do it together. Usually that involves a gigantic amount of screaming.”

Just once, her forcefulness grates. A woman asks if The Gates were erected in February to exploit winter weather, something Christo had already discussed. “The young lady wants to know if it was pure accident that in New York it would be cold and snow in February!” The audience dutifully laughs at the young lady.

The biggest question comes near the end. Why do they make these things? Christo: “A painter has a big white canvas, and wants to fill it. Why? No reason. It is the same thing for us.” Jeanne-Claude: “We do not create messages, we do not create symbols. We create ordinary works of art, of joy and beauty that have absolutely no reason of being. They are good for nothing except to be a work of art.”

The end nears. Jeanne-Claude: “We have one minute left, nobody has the mic?” Christo: “Nobody.” Jeanne-Claude: “OK!” Christo: “Thank you very much!” And they jack-in-the-box from their seats, in perfect unison.

9 December 2005

Powered by Netfirms