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Precision seems to be very important to artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. In one of their most well-known projects, executed in in February of 2005, 7500 saffron gates were installed in Central Park. In 1991, 1340 oversize blue cloth umbrellas were installed in Japan at the same time 1760 yellow umbrellas popped up in California in 1991. The married couple also investigated 89 Rocky Mountain rivers for their planned project “Over the River,” in which 5.9 miles of paneled fabric will be suspended over a 40-mile stretch of Colorado’s Arkansas river. The application for government approval was a 2029-page book.
“It will be 45 minutes and we will show 81 slides,” Jeanne-Claude said, by way of prefacing a speech, at the beginning of an event held last Wednesday at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston. The afternoon and evening were devoted to celebrating the artists and their work, and, more specifically, their skill in negotiating complex social and legal issues in order to pursue their enormous installation projects. Their talk lasted 45 minutes, and there were 81 slides.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude were in town to receive the Great Negotiators award from the Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation. Previous winners of the yearly prize have usually been affiliated with international diplomacy; this is the first time artists have received the award. As the event progressed, it become more and more clear not only how persuasive Christo and Jeanne-Claude must be in order to gain permission and support their controversial projects, but also how central those negotiations are to the artistic process and to the art itself.
“The process is absolutely part of the work of art, but it is not the aim,” Jeanne-Claude said. “To put it in human terms, a nine-month pregnancy is for the mother a part of having the child, but it is not the aim.” The artists never accept outside funding for their work. The hugely expensive projects, with budgets often running into the tens of millions of dollars, are entirely financed by the sale of Christo’s preparatory works and work from the 1950s and 1960s.
“We don’t do commissions—the process is sometimes more important than the product,” Christo said. The artists’ projects are marked by a peculiar tension between the intense anticipation of a work that may take decades to come to fruition and the subsequent memories of the project—the memories of those who experienced the work, but also the documentary evidence and preparatory drawings that form the physical residue of a transient installation. Between these lie the climactic two weeks when each project is open to the public; afterward, all the materials are dismantled and recycled.
During an intermission in the afternoon’s events, Christo and Jeanne-Claude stepped out onto a balcony by the ICA’s theater. In the warmth of the afternoon sun, Jeanne-Claude tipped the ash of her cigarette into a rectangular metal box that she pulled from her bag. She seemed slightly annoyed by questions: “The answer to that is on our website.” Christo was more forthcoming.
“There is this unstoppable urge to do a work of art. There is no justification required... We are trying to make something above triviality.”
“No, beyond triviality.”
“Yes, yes. Beyond triviality.”
“Christo and I don’t use the word ‘above’ anymore,” she said, and linguistic precision was maintained.
This back-and-forth dialogue, a mix of banter and correction, returned many times throughout the afternoon. At one point Christo wagged his long, thin forefinger at Jeanne-Claude, but for much of the time his hand rested on hers, or hers rested on his. Christo looks a bit like Woody Allen, with his floppy grey hair and dark, thick glasses. He was casually put-together, mixing an old khaki pocketed jacket with jeans and loafers. But where Allen is nervous and pessimistic, Christo is joyful and energetic.
The evening finished with an award dinner held overlooking the city and Boston harbor from the ICA’s stunning glass theater. The tablecloths and napkins were a bright orange, recalling both the Gates of Central Park as well as Jeanne-Claude’s strikingly colored hair (“My hair turned red when Christo’s turned grey”).
Receiving the Great Negotiators award, Jeanne-Claude recounted what she called as “maybe the most important negotiation of our lives,” when they convinced the American government to give them a tourist visa to come to New York, which they subsequently overstayed (they are still living in New York). Christo clasped his palms together near his chest and beamed at the applause.
Earlier in the afternoon one of them had said, about their art and their process, “It’s all intertwined, mostly on a human level. Because we are human beings. They forget to tell you that!”
—Staff writer Alexander B. Fabry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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