Araconteur of life, Christo Javacheff has led a colorful journey of life that is as large as the monumental works of art he has completed that have left an indelible mark on each visitor who has seen his work. Perhaps it was fleeing the Bulgarian revolution as a teenager on a freight train heading to Austria filled with defectors to living stateless in Europe for 17 years that inspired his works of art to have political undertones. Using fabric and industrial materials in urban environments he has wrapped the Pont Neuf in Paris and the Reichstag in Berlin. His works have spanned the globe with The Umbrellas in Japan and California, The Gates in Central Park, Floating Piers in Italy, and the Surrounded Islands in Biscayne Bay. His controversial yet ephemeral projects that are all completely self funded can take decades of planning due to many layers of opposition only to have a life for days or weeks. It’s perhaps his innate instinct for survival learned at an early lifealong with the support of his partner the late Jeanne Claude that gave him the perseverance to see his artistic vision to fruition.
A genius and visionary, here Christo recounts the history and story behind each of his larger than life projects with his dear friend of over 40 years, RoseLee Goldberg, the Founding Director and Chief Curator of Perfoma who was honoring Christo and Jeanne Claude in their 2018 Gala. Performa is a multidisciplinary non-profit arts organization dedicated to exploring the critical role of live performance in the history of twentieth-century art and to encouraging new directions in performance for the twenty-first century. Part of Performa’s mission is to present a biennial of visual art performance in New York City that illuminates the critical role of performance in the history of art as well as its enormous significance in the international world of contemporary art.
Early Years as an Artist
Many people from the Soviet Block escaped to the West in tanks to Austria and Vienna. I became stateless and renounced my nationality while I was an artist and the Austrian government took my Bulgarian passport and gave it to the embassy. I was a man with no passport, but I got a white passport for 17 years and needed a visa to visit any country until 1974. When I was in Vienna I was doing all sorts of odd terrible jobs because I could only speak Russian and Bulgarian and we were not permitted to speak any capitalist languages during the time of Stalin. Fortunately I was a gifted painter and did portraits on canvas. When I escaped from the border of Czech and Austria I arrived at the home of my father’s friend in Vienna. I had my student card and wrote a letter to rescind my citizenship and became a refugee. While I was in Vienna I did portraits of all the officers in the United Nations who were from distinguished families around the world, who helped me get to Paris. My biggest supplier was a hairdresser who had rich clients including Brigitte Bardot and Jacques Dessange. Coincidentally I just repurchased my portrait of Bardot at an auction in Paris.
While in Paris I rented a maid’s room on the top level on Blvd Haussmann. I had to create smaller size barrels to the upper floors and then did sculptures in the outer boroughs of Paris. This was the real fabric wrapped around the barrels which eventually inspired my later works. The first project for the wrapped buildings was in 1961 and the message was that the real buildings that should be wrapped would be Parliament or prison. In 1962 after the Berlin wall was built we did the Iron Curtain. The first exhibition was in Cologne when the wall was built in Germany and I was so afraid the Soviet Union would march all over Germany again. I returned to Paris closing these barrels on the rue Visconti. We tried to get permission and we did the installation illegally in 1962. It was up for 10 hours because people couldn’t pass through the street, one of my barrel sculptures is in the Kroller Muller in Amsterdam.
In In 1965 I became very friendly with John and Dominique de Menil, who became collectors of mine and they saw the barrels proposals and we tried to The Mastaba between Galveston and Houston. I did scale models and drawings, one of which is on display at the Serpentine Gallery in London. In 1972 we had the drawings for The Mastaba in Holland and we had a visit by the French United Nations officer who was a collector and eventually became the foreign secretary for France. He suggested to do this in a new nation that formed in 1971, the United Arab Emirates. At the time we were finishing the Pont Neuf and the Reichstag, and The Umbrellas. It was very difficult to do The Mastaba in the Middle East, so we decided to do this in London this past summer because it’s full of people at Kensington Garden.
Choice of Location
Whether it is urban or rural, we always do art near where people live by houses or telephone poles because we need to have a scale of the project. Each project was designed for a particular place like the Reichstag. But also they are designed for different seasons in the year. The Gates was designed for the winter because Central Park was like a forest, and Miami it was during the late spring.
In 1972 we just finished The Valley Curtain, a giant 400 meter long orange curtain in Colorado, across Rifle Gap. Over the last 22 years we realized 22 projects and we failed to get permission for 47 projects which meant that we always have to have something going ahead because they overlap. Once we get permission we left other things aside and we concentrate our resources, money, and energy work to make something happen. From these 47 projects that were refused after a while we didn’t want to do them anymore. Three times the Reichstag was refused, in 1972, 1974, and 1981. In 1995 we were just realizing the wrapping of the Reichstag. Meanwhile we did many other projects over those years such as The Umbrellas in Japan and California.
Originally we wanted to do the floating piers in Tokyo Bay because it has so much water around the lakes and bays and we needed to have calm water. We almost did the project in 1998 but we had a huge fight with the governor of Tokyo.
But eventually we moved the project to Italy and spent time in the North near the lakes and alps between 1968 and 1970 by Lake Iseo near Brescia. In 1974 we had a connection with many Italian people and collectors who can buy works of art. The lakes were not normal lakes, they were glacial and ranged from 300-700 feet deep with a mountain in the center as high as Manhattan’s Liberty Tower. Only 2,000 people who lived on this island and could only access it by boat. For 16 days I allowed them to walk on the water and we created a 3 km pier. To undertake this we needed to get permission from 3 entities- the lake, the mayor of Sulzano and the mayor of the Monte Isola. So we decided to go from the bottom and started with Monte Isola first. Then we would go to Rome after we got permission from the 3 entities. When we got all of these agreements and did the press conference in Rome, the government was incapable to stop this, and that’s why it took under 2 years to do this project. Because it was in a small place very few people knew.
Overcoming Obstacles and Costs
Each of these projects is built like a highway or bridge and you need to organize and hire specialists and engineers and the technology isn’t complicated as there are floating piers and marinas around the world. The law is the most difficult part. Nobody understands that. This was above 300-700 feet of deep water. We were renting about 10km of water so that no one could use it. This project ended up costing $22 million Euros. We rented Central Park for $3 Million so we could have it for 3 months.
The biggest amount of work was the Reichstag. It took us 25 years to get the permission and 3 refusals, there were over 600 pieces of work. During this time I really learned what the Reichstag was, but that’s what creates the power of it because it’s beyond a painting or a sculpture.
The most expensive part of The Umbrellas was that it was in 2 parts like a diptyque or painting, and it was done in the richest countries of the world- Japan and the United States. But the most difficult part was that it was in a very busy area of metropolitan Tokyo. That project cost us nearly $600 Million. We had to pay the highway patrol and every service non stop. It spanned 16 miles long in California and 12 miles in Japan. There was a moment when we had to stop the project because people couldn’t walk in the streets. This is something we are always facing and try to manage. There was no way to move the project.
All of the drawings reflect the evolution of the project done in the studio since 1964, I cannot decide how the project is done from the materials or how it is built. We have to make small models first. Near the German and Danish border there was a lake and we did the first version of the Reichstag.
For the Floating Piers we needed to test the anchors under the water it used 150 anchors which were 5 tons each with special divers. For this purpose we needed to do underwater tests so we went to Bulgaria underneath the Black Sea to see how it could be done and connected. All of the projects go through that.
We’re borrowing public spaces. Humans move through this space its part of their everyday lives. We inherit all of the activities of these humans to work, go to school. Sometimes it’s very complicated and difficult, you have all of these services and governments that you have to negotiate with. But our projects are very much under the domain of architecture and urban planning. Ask many architects how many are really building, most of them are just drawing sketches. Each project has a software period when its only in sketches and in the mind, thousands try to help us and thousands try to stop us and we discover what the project really is. After the permission stage then we have the hardware period with real elements, the wind, people, traffic, kilometers. This is why we have specialists who work in these types of engineering projects. People protest why you do this by a water or a bridge.
You cannot make these decisions in the studio or on the computer. I don’t understand computers, I cannot open one and I don’t like to talk on the telephone. I like real things. I am absolutely drunk on the real thing. Real sun, real wind, real kilometers, real fear, no TV, I’m very compulsive. I am even drunk with working with so many professional people to go in their head and find out how things can be done, convince them to get on this project. This is the energy and why we don’t do commissions. I don’t like to sit, I like to move all the time, sitting immobilizes my relationship with the world.
Choice of Colors and Renewable Resources
The fabric is the principal material to translate the nomadic character of the project. Like Bedouins who build their tents then take it away that is like our projects. We use different types of industrial fabrics for each project. Color is also one of the special things. The Umbrellas had two colors- blue in Japan as it’s the rainy season with flowing rivers and lush vegetation and yellow in California as the sun burns the grassy landscape to gold and brown. The Gates started in 1979 and was realized in 2005. We chose a saffron color because it was going to be done during the autumn or winter. The structures were not designed as an arch but instead they represent a footprint of the buildings that surround Central Park.
The biggest amount of fabric we used was 6.5 million square feet for the Reichstag. Material is the least expensive thing, the labor is the most expensive. For The Gates we used 5,000 tons of steel, almost 2/3 of what comprises the Eiffel Tower. We bought the steel from Pennsylvania to make the 7,503 gates and each base was a different size of weight depending on the size of the gate. That cost $5 million and before we even used the steel we sold it to the Chinese who used it for building a skyscraper. Much of the materials are resold in advance. Like the project in Australia, we used a mesh that was also used by South Pacific farmers to grow crops.
Everything we do we try to do it wisely and inexpensively. This is very dialectic by sheer necessity. The same energy exists in other professions and why it’s very normal and what makes the project important. We do many different things and we have so many problems but that journey is so incredible. This is very ordinary.
Imaging | Lorraine Baker
Photo Assistant | Richard Baranya
Tania Guerra for Angelo David Salon | Chanel Beauty