“It is Like Going to the Heavens”: Environmental Art Icon Christo on Creating the Largest Sculpture in the World


This post was selected for inclusion in our Future of Art and Work series in December 2016. The series, sponsored by Microsoft Surface, selects some of our best posts exploring the topics of how art and work will look in the 21st century. This post was originally published in May, 2016.

The environmental canvas of Christo and longtime collaborator Jeanne-Claude has taken the artists — famed for their large-scale “wrapping” projects and the nearly 7,000 gates with saffron-colored fabric installed in New York City’s Central Park — from Australia, Japan, and the Rocky Mountains, to the Pont Neuf in Paris and the Parliament steps in Berlin.

Now, nearly seven years after Jeanne-Claude’s death in 2009, Christo embarks on a solo venture to complete several works in progress, including The Mastaba, an ambitious project originally conceived in 1977 with Jeanne-Claude. Created from 410,000 stacked multicolored oil barrels, the massive flat-roof structure will be the largest sculpture in the world.

From June 4 to November 27, Christo will create another monumental mastaba (topping at 9m x 17m x 9m) for the Maeght Foundation in the French museum’s Giacometti courtyard. The exhibition will catalog other barrel works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, a material Christo has used since 1958, while an entire room will be dedicated to cataloging the planned Abu Dhabi mastaba.

Flavorwire spoke to Christo about his difficult beginnings with Jeanne-Claude in 1960’s New York City, his epic works created entirely outside the museum and gallery system, and the astonishing feat of The Mastaba.

Flavorwire: You arrived in New York City with Jeanne-Claude in 1964 . . .

Christo: It is a long story. New York City was still New York City, but very different from today.

What was New York City like, what was the state of the art world, and what were you doing at that time?

It was a very difficult time for myself. I was a political refugee — stateless. No passport. I came here, because a few years before, in Paris, I met an American dealer, Leo Castelli. Leo Castelli told me, ‘When you come to New York, I’d like to exhibit your work.’ Jeanne-Claude and myself, we arrived in February 1964 in New York. We lived for the first four months in the Chelsea Hotel. While I was at the Chelsea Hotel, I did the sculptures called Store Fronts, which was exhibited in the Leo Castelli Gallery in May 1964 with four other artists. We stayed here for four months, until June, and then we went back to Paris. We came here as tourists, you know? Jeanne-Claude always liked to say, ‘For almost three years, we became illegal aliens.’ We didn’t have a green card until 1966-67.

It was a very different New York. It was during the Cold War. I was coming from Bulgaria, a very pro-Soviet country. To come to the United States was absolutely impossible, because I was coming from a Communist country. I needed to wait 14 years to come to the United States legally. At that point, I was not speaking English at all. I spoke only Russian and Bulgarian. I had no money to live alone, no family, no relatives, and I learned the French language in the streets. Jeanne-Claude was speaking English, and she was helping to communicate with the American writers and artists.

In October of 1964, we found a building that was empty since 1940, just before the war started. We were not permitted to live there [at that time]. I’m still in that building, over 53 years.

Do you consider yourself a New Yorker?

Of course, after living here over 50 years. It’s the longest I’ve lived in any building, or any place in my life. I am more of a New Yorker than anybody else.

I wondered if you identified that way, because your work is very ephemeral . . . nomadic. Not just because you’ve installed work in many different places, but the quality of the fabric. How do you feel about the sense of place in your work?

There is not any place, not at all. The fabric is like a nomadic tribe. They build their tents overnight, and then they’re gone. The fabric is an essential, lyrical material. It is installed very fast and moves very fast. But we use so much more, too — tables and all kinds of things. But the fabric is a part of nomadic tribes. They build their habitat with fabric. The fabric is used, because it is very manageable, very transportable, and very easy.

The use of fabric in the history of art is as old as the history of art. For thousands of years, artists have used fabric in their paintings. The style of Medieval sculpture, the folds of the fabric of the Madonna, they’re much more angular than the style of the Baroque sculpture — whereas in Renaissance sculpture, with Michelangelo or Bernini, the folds were flamboyant. In the case of the French sculptor Rodin, he had a commission to do the figure of Balzac, the French novelist. Rodin made Balzac totally naked, with a big belly, skinny legs, and many details. He took the fabric cape of Balzac and shrouded the figure of Balzac, hiding all the details in the figure and highlighting the proportions of Balzac.

This is what we do when we do wrapping projects. Not The Umbrellas, not The Gates, but the projects that we wrap, like the coast of Australia in the end of ’69, or when we wrapped the Pont Neuf in Paris in 1985, and the Reichstag in 1995. The Reichstag building is a 19th-century building with many ornamental decorations by the architect Paul Wallot. When we wrapped the building with this big silver fabric, we hid all those ornamental decorations of the building and highlighted its principle proportions — very much like the sculpture of Balzac by Rodin.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude during their first trip to the United Arab Emirates, February 1979Photo: Wolfgang Volz© 1979 Christo

The Mastaba project has been in the works for decades now. You and Jeanne-Claude created your first oil barrel piece in 1962 as a protest against the Berlin Wall. It was without permission, and you blocked the streets. But the new work is not a barricade. It has an almost sacred context in this sublime space.

I do not put my finger on the world map, and say ‘I’d like go there.’ All our projects have their own history. Some projects, they’re designed for a particular space. The Gates was designed for Central Park. The Reichstag was designed for the wrapping of the Reichstag building. We had an idea, and we tried to find the right place — like the Running Fence in California in 1976, the Valley Curtain in Colorado in 1972, the Umbrellas in Japan and California, and of course the project we are making now.

I tried very much to do the sculpture of the Mastaba in the United States. We became friendly with French-American collectors in Houston, Texas by the name of John and Dominique de Menil. They were suggesting we try to do the Mastaba — smaller size, not like in Abu Dhabi — between Houston and Galveston, in Texas, around 1966-68, but we never got permission.

The largest collection of early works of mine in a European museum is the very famous museum in Holland, called the Kröller-Müller Museum. The Kröller-Müller hosts many of our early works from 1968 to the early ’70s. We tried to do a smaller version of the Mastaba [about two stories high] in a parking lot near the museum in Otterlo, Holland, but, again, we didn’t get permission.

In our works, we leave a lot of chance. If Mr. Bloomberg were not elected mayor of New York City, we would never do The Gates. If Rita Süssmuth were not elected the president of Parliament of Germany, we never would have been able to do the Reichstag. And the same thing for the Mastaba. We became friendly with a French representative to the United Nations, Louis de Guiringaud, who was a collector. He came here, saw the idea about the Mastaba, and he tells us, ‘Christo and Jeanne-Claude, you will never have a chance to do that in the Western world.’ In 1971, they created a new nation called the United Arab Emirates. There was a ruler, Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, who was a very adventurous Bedouin, coming from the desert. Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan put together the remaining six sheikdoms, including Dubai, to create the United Arab Emirates. Of course, I have no slightest idea, Jeanne-Claude and myself. What is Abu Dhabi? We tried to look at photographs — Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and the Sharjah. There was the British protectorate, by the sheikdom, and by 1972 they became free. When Giscard d’Estaing [Valéry Giscard d’Estaing] was elected President of France, our friend Mr. De Guiringaud became the Foreign Minister of France. Jeanne-Claude and I sent a telegram to Mr. De Guiringaud: ‘We would like to go to Abu Dhabi.’ Our official arrival to Abu Dhabi was in 1979.

We spent a lot of time there between ’79 and ’80, and then we did other projects. We were working mainly on the Reichstag since 1971. We were working on Pont Neuf since 1975. We never work on one project, we work on several projects simultaneously, because we’re never sure that we’ll get permission. For 60 years, Jeanne-Claude and myself realized 22 projects, but we sought to get permission for 27 projects. At that time, we were continuously juggling the projects’ problems and the projects advancing. Finally, when we get permission for a project, all other projects are put aside, and we’ll finish that project. We were working steadily on the Abu Dhabi project since 1979. Today, the Mastaba is very advanced. We’re working on two works in progress. One is called Over the River, a project over the Arkansas River in Colorado, and the Mastaba in Abu Dhabi.

How big is the project?

The project is 410,000 oil barrels — the standard size oil barrels, but they were specially made for us.

How do you feel when your projects are rejected?

It’s not easy to accept refusals. It’s a difficult time. But an important thing to understand is that we do not do commissions. The important part of why we like our projects to be originated by us is to create the real energy of the work. The most important thing of all our works is that they are absolutely our projects. They are not initiated by some mayor of the city, the president of some company, some corporation, or some collector. They are entirely originated by us, meaning we need to get the permission, which is the most difficult part.

All our projects have two distinct periods: the software period and the hardware period. The software period is when the project does not exist. We never do the same things again. We will never build another Gates, we’ll never do another Islands, we’ll never wrap another parliament, or another bridge. They are unique. Even ourselves, we do not know how to do this project. It’s never been done before. This is why through the software period the project develops in its own identity. And of course, the other important part, the project develops its own participatory public. Meaning that, the people, they can support it, they try to stop us, and the people who are for the project try to help us — hundreds of people, thousands of people, but sometimes millions of people. Ask what artist can tell you that.

For example, for the Over The River project, we needed to have permission from the United States Department of the Interior of the US Federal Government. The land belonged to the federal government. The federal government wrote two publications totaling 4,000 pages for our application and the Environmental Impact Statement. These cost us $4 million. This is why I will not do commissions, because through that permitting process, the work will have its energy, its power.

And of course the hardware process is when we go to the real things. The real five kilometer, one mile, ten miles, the real wind, the real water, and the real sun. It’s not virtual, they’re real things. It is very important that there’s nothing virtual in our projects. When a project is rejected, sometimes we don’t like to do it anymore. We are hurt, we try again, but we don’t have to do it anymore. Sometimes a project is rejected, and we like to do it. That is the case of the Italian project [The Floating Piers]. The Italian project started in 1970 and was not supposed to be in Italy. We proposed to do that in Argentina, on the delta of the Rio de la Plata near Buenos Aires. We never got permission. Many of our projects have water and earth. We very much have a connection to that difference between the medium — water and the firmness of the earth. In 1969 for the project in Australia [Wrapped Coast], we wrapped the coastline of the South Pacific Ocean. The waves were coming over the fabric, the rocks, and the coastline. After we wrapped the Reichstag in 1995, Jeanne-Claude and myself, we still loved to do that idea of Floating Pier, and we proposed it in the area of Tokyo Bay called Odaiba. We worked very hard in ’96-97, but we never got permission. Finally, we found a lake . . . and we are 45 days before that project is realized. [The Floating Piers opens June 18 to July 3, 2016]

Christo and Jeanne-ClaudeRunning Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76Photo: Still from the film Running Fence by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin© 1976 Christo

I wanted to ask about you being filmed while you work. Albert and David Maysles created documentaries about your work for decades . . .

Albert and David Maysles, they are like a family. They are very close friends to us, because they are also a part of our life. We were living in Paris in 1961 when Albert and David arrived to show Showman, the film about Joe Levine, the movie producer. We became very close friends — and since that time, imagine that, in 1961. [laughs]. Albert and David were very eager to film many of our projects, and they are like a family, living with us, we were all together, a family of us all around the world.

Is it very important to you that you document your projects that way?

Yes, it is very important — on many levels. It is not only films and photography, but it is many things. We also have our own photographer who covers the project. All of these projects are temporary. They are gone after two weeks, or 16 days, three weekends, etc. And of course, there is that unique moment, for this very short time, but Jeanne-Claude and myself, we are very conscious, too. We keep strict records of the work of art. It does not substitute the work, but it is a file of archived materials. This is why through the making of the project it can take many years or several decades. I make drawings. Through my selling the drawings and scale models of the works we’d like to do, we pay for our project. This is our money. No foundations, no governments, no industries. All our work is copyrighted. We own the things. Nobody can use our images for any commercial uses. When the project is removed, we collect the archived materials of the engineers, the scale models, the real components of the project — the real cables, the real fabric, and real hooks. There are many things.

Each of our projects has its own documentation exhibition. The exhibitions are very large, from 300 to 500 pieces of archived materials. We own these exhibitions, and it cost around $18 million to buy the Surrounded Islands exhibition. This is why, before Jeanne-Claude passed away, we were very successful to sell the entire documentation exhibition of the Running Fence to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington — all entire 350 pieces of the story of the Running Fence and an enormous scale model. The exhibitions help me to build new projects, because this is millions and millions of dollars.

You do have a lot of people helping you with every project, but I wondered . . .

In my studio, I am alone. I do not have assistants. Every original work is done with my own hand. Each project is very complex. In the late ’60s, our principle lawyer Scott Hodes told us that all these projects should be done using the capitalist system. He said that we needed to create a normal corporation. We started to build very large projects around the world, and we sold the original works. Also, that corporation buys back the original works. It is a holding company, called C.V.J Corporation [short for Christo’s full name, Christo Vladimirov Javacheff]. We create subsidiaries like every corporation. There was the Running Fence Corporation in California. There was the subsidiary of the Surrounded Islands Corporation in Florida. There is the subsidiary right now of Mastaba Corporation, the Over the River Corporation in Colorado, and the Italian corporation, the Floating Piers Corporation. The corporation receives money from C.V.J. Corporation to pay the bills. This corporation has a director, a chief engineer, lawyers, and professional people buying materials, all separate. And all that comes at the sale of original works that C.V.J. Corporation sells. After The Gates, the Harvard Business School taught the students the case of Bill Gates, the case of Steve Jobs, and also the case of Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Do you recommend other artists work that way?

I don’t recommend it. This is my way. This is what I do, and this is how we’ve done it for 50 years

Is any part of your process different now, without Jeanne-Claude?

Of course, it is very hard. In this five-story building, I have the top floor, but downstairs are for the assistants Jeanne-Claude had. They were very close to Jeanne-Claude. Jonathan is Jeanne-Claude’s nephew, and there is my nephew, Vladimir. Both of these young men worked for Jeanne-Claude for over 25 years. They are family, and we are running the C.V.J. Corporation with all the lawyers.

When I started to sell my work in the late ’60s . . . usually artists show at a gallery, the gallery represents them, and the gallery helps to sell his or her work. But my work, nobody was eager to have that situation. I thought sporadically, ‘What to do, what to do? And what sort of gallery would like to have me — to take care of my work?’ Jeanne-Claude and myself, we became the biggest collectors of our work. We have an enormous amount of original work from the late ’60s to today. We have so much work that our principle storage is in Basel, Switzerland. We have our own curator. We use this work of art as collateral with the banks, because the banks believe in my work, and we can have that cash flow necessary for the project. Young artists will tell you that the collectors, the museums, the dealers, they are notoriously slow payers. They buy the work of art, but they sometimes pay in installments, pay little, take time to pay, and not right away. But we can’t say to our workers on Friday, ‘We cannot pay you, because we have not been paid yet. This is why, when we do all these projects, we work with banks. It’s no secret.

The Mastaba (Project for Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates)Collage 2014 in two parts12 x 30 1/2″ and 26 1/4 x 30 1/2″ (30.5 x 77.5 cm and 66.7 x 77.5 cm)Pencil, charcoal, pastel, wax crayon, enamel paint, hand-drawn map and technical data on rodoid and tape on brown boardPhoto: André Grossmann© 2014 ChristoRef. # 22-2014

Let’s go back to the Mastaba project. It’s going to be permanent?

I have many permanent works. The Mastaba will be our biggest permanent sculpture. Actually, probably the biggest sculpture in the world. It’s bigger than the Pyramid of Cheops.

But the other permanent works are not this big . . . not this scale.

If you are only looking at big, that is a different story. But it is a sculpture, a normal sculpture. It is only bigger. The sculpture of the Mastaba is not only the Mastaba. We are doing the project in one of the most beautiful areas, the Oasis of Liwa, inland from Abu Dhabi. We like very much that the sculpture stays in this very special landscape. The dune, actually, would start moving. The dune is tall, like 120 feet. We’d like to have the entire area of this landscape to become a part of the work of art. It’s not like the Pyramids; there are buildings near that. This is an incredible, spectacular landscape.

What is the most crucial element of the Mastaba?

There are many important things. One thing is the aesthetics of the Mastaba. The mastaba is a structure much older than the Pyramids. It is not related to the Pyramids. A mastaba is a 7,000-year-old geometric form that comes from the bench. [The earliest known mastaba is from the Pre- and Early-Dynastic periods.] The mastaba is a bench. You have two slanted sides, two vertical sides, and a horizontal top. Of course, the one important part of our mastaba is the proportion. When you stack horizontally an object, any object — pencils, bottles, or barrels — the angle is always 60 degrees. The most important part of the Mastaba project is that the proportion is two, three, four. Meaning, using the metric system, one unit is 75 meters. Twice of one unit is 150 meters. Three times of one unit makes 225 meters. Four times of that unit makes 300 meters. The pyramid is a totally different proportion. And a complete coincidence, without knowing, the footprint of the Mastaba is the entire square of Bernini’s St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Each vertical wall has 110,000 barrels, with ten different colors of barrels. These ten colors, they’re not ornamental or any design. The model that was done in 1979, I painted all the 110,000 barrels little dots of special colors. Each vertical wall has a different arrangement, but no decorative images or anything except an enormously huge abstraction, almost like a giant painting. The vertical wall is made from 60-cm diameter barrels. The slanted wall is made by the 89cm-length of the barrels. And when you are in the middle of a slanted wall, you do not see the vertical walls, not like a pyramid. From the view, you have the tallest staircase in the world. It is 500-foot-tall stairway, and it is like going to the heavens.