The fab duo.
These films expertly exhibit Christo & Jeanne-Claudes’ art: very large scale temporary transformations of the landscape. The films are the closest relationship we can have with these pieces, which were in place for no more than 3 weeks, like the peak of spring. Each piece has unique sounds, undulations, and interactions with the landscape, just as each piece has its own ad-hoc community of workers and locals, landowners, politicians, and art patrons that helped make it happen.
While Andy Goldsworthy makes beautiful sculptures out of nature itself, Christo & Jeanne-Claude bring the artificial into nature, which for me is not quite as compelling artistically. But their work has an added element of public interaction and debate that Goldsworthy, working in solitude, fails to bring to such a fever pitch. About half of each film is dedicated to the process, sometimes 10-15 years long, of obtaining permission for the project. Permission must be granted from dozens of legislative bodies, regulatory committees, other government entities, and private individuals. For the Japanese Umbrellas project, permission had to be obtained from 750 individual farmers.
All this red tape results in a fantastic public dialog where the artists take center stage, often going door to door to gain public support for their project. They engage farmers, politicians, families, many of whom rarely discuss art or go to art museums. So the project quickly becomes the talk of the town, and the biggest question is, “Is It Art?” This is precisely the point: outsiders coming into a community and confronting people with a project, asking that they accept that it is art or, if nothing else, it is beautiful and worthwhile. Christo & Jeanne-Claude may not be the best sales people, but they are incredibly tenacious, very well organized, they’ve learned to play the political game, and they are ultimately successful at eliciting joy from doubters and supporters alike when the project is finally unveiled.
Christo & Jeanne-Claude demand complete control over their projects, so they do not accept contributions and they craft contracts that allow them complete freedom over the execution and timing. They make all of their money selling prints, design drawings, books, movies, and other memorabilia around these works. So, this is in opposition to the typical selling of art pieces. Christo & Jeanne-Claude do not sell their art at all, they sell only the frame. This was most clearly demonstrated with the wrapping of the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris, which has for centuries been the subject of countless paintings and sketches. But they turned the bridge itself into art, and the idea of painting the bridge on its head.
Jeanne-Claude makes a point of frequently telling people “We spend the same amount on each project, which is everything we have raised plus everything we have saved.” The couple goes broke every time they do a project, but because they’ve managed to gain so much public support over the years, each project is more and more ambitious. According to Wikipedia, the Valley Curtain project of 1970 had a budget of $400,000, and the Umbrellas project of 1995 cost over $26 million.
I highly recommend these films, especially the Pont Neuf and Umbrellas documentaries. Here’s some of their work:
Umbrellas — California
Umbrellas — Japan
Pont Neuf Wrapped