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Once Upon a Time...And Never Again: 5 Films About Christo & Jeanne-Claude

by dave heaton

"I can't see any reason in being skeptical over it. They built the Golden Gate bridge, they built the Space Needle, the Empire State know, I mean, it's not the erection of it, it's the thought. This is a vision, boy...I would never in a lifetime ever thought anybody would ever think about doing something like this."
- a construction worker, in Christo's Valley Curtain

The environmental art of the Christos is so audacious and public that it has come to embody mainstream skepticism about contemporary art. Or to put it another way, many people just don't get why someone would want to wrap the Reichstag in fabric, or hang cloth over gates throughout Central Park. But it's evident from all of the documentaries contained in the DVD box set 5 Films About Christo and Jeanne-Claude that all it takes to erase this skepticism is to see the actual works of art - these temporary, brave acts of beauty tend to stop people in their tracks and take their breaths away. Nearly every film has someone saying something to the effect of 'this is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen'...and those words are seldom coming from art critics or wealthy art collectors, but from regular folk, from farmers and construction workers. That effect of feeling stunned by one of Christo's works is captured in all 5 of the films, along with so much more. Each of the 5 films - Christo's Valley Curtain (1974), Running Fence (1978), Islands (1986), Christo in Paris (1990) and Umbrellas (1995) - captures the entire process of birthing one of these creations, from Christo's original sketches and plans through the often lengthy, laborious process of getting the proper clearances and permissions, to the actual days when Christo and his wife/collaborator Jeanne-Claude get to see their dreams come to fruition. Each film was directed by Albert Maysles and associates (including his brother David for four of the films, plus six other people - essentially the same team behind such classic documentaries as Salesman, Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens), and each is a splendid work of documentary filmmaking, in no way just a simple portrait of an artist. Maysles, et al take such an observant approach to human behavior that they really capture the essence of the Christos' art and how it affects people, on both a personal and a societal level. There are so many memorable moments, details, and images in these films that they stand as some of the most compelling documentaries you'll see.

Christo's Valley Curtain begins with a scene typical of these documentaries: Christo working in his studio on a sketch of the project, as he imagines it in his head. In this case, the scene has been manufactured a bit for the film - he is drawing pictures after the fact, as the filmmaking process began at a later stage than it would for the later films. But the effect is the same - you see an artist's conceptualization of his work. Though the selling of these drawings is what makes Christo's large-scale, expensive projects financially possible, what sets him apart from most artists is that what he's selling are souvenirs, snapshots instead of the actual art. Art for Christo is something that happens in public - something beautiful and mysterious which appears for a week or two and then disappears, just as a rainbow appears and leaves, or the Aurora Borealis. Those comparisons make sense as well because Christo and Jeanne-Claude's works always relate to their surroundings in a tangible way (both to the natural world and the community of people, as they always are installed near where people live). The Christos create cloth-works and carefully integrate them into the world for their effect, as a means of affecting people by both the work itself and the way it relates to what's around it. The Valley Curtain project involved hanging an enormous orange curtain between two mountains in Colorado. Valley Curtain, the film, focuses mostly on the hanging of the curtain - in doing so, it shows both the process of the Christos, the way they oversee and help with every step of the installation, and the reactions of the people involved. The film espcially highlights the thoughts of the iron workers who are doing the rather dangerous work, but also gives a nice outside perspective from the curious, and not exactly enthusiastic golfers who play their game as the curtain is hung in the background. At 30 minutes, this film is the shortest of the five. Its compactness makes it a perfect introduction to what Christo's art is about, as well as a compelling suspense short about how hard it is to pull off such a feat. The film is also highly emotional, however, as all of these films are. Much of the emotion comes through the human reactions - both of the artists ("incredible...just like the drawing," Christo says) and of the workers, who began with the attitude that it was just another job but by the end can't help but be moved by it ("I've never seen anything so beautiful in all my life," says one). The work itself is also shown so vividly that you can't help but be moved by it. Near the film's end, the camera observes the curtain lovingly, showing it from close and afar, from various perspectives that give us a real sense of how majestic it was.

Running Fence takes us deeper into the process of creating one of the Christos' works, and in doing so takes us deeper into the human connections that form the backdrop to the work. The film begins with Christo and Jeanne-Claude watching a man on a horse lasso and wrangle a calf...these are the ranchers upon whose land the Christos will build the Running Fence, a 24-mile, 18 feet-high white nylon fence that winded along a California ridge and lead into the ocean, for two weeks in 1976. This film begins with the concept and the artists being greeted in a somewhat unfriendly way by some of the people in the community...a series of public hearing are shown, along with the attitudes of locals who are against it ("what kind of art is that? Why doesn't he just paint a picture?"). What it takes to get the permission granted has a lot to do with Christo and Jeanne-Claude convincing the local residents that he isn't a crazy outsider trying to wreak some kind of havoc in their neighborhood. They go door to door, talking to ranchers one by one, until the ranchers are solidly behind them, coming to their defense at public hearings and convincing the county to give permission. After the ranchers have agreed to let their land be used, it becomes a property rights struggle, with the ranchers proclaiming their right to use their land for this purpose if they want to ("I come to one conclusion, 'I don't own this ranch," a rancher states in anger at one point). One rancher's wife offers an especially powerful defense for the project that also serves as a potent defense for Christo's art in general: "There was one thing said about art being temporal. Some of the meals I prepare aren't much...But sometimes I go through a lot of work to prepare a meal that I think is art. It's a masterpiece. And what happens, it gets eaten up and disappeared and everybody forgets it." At the same hearing, Christo gives what amounts to a summary of his artistic philosophy, declaring that "20th century art is not an individual experience," so he sees the public hearings, the community reactions, the relationships built around the piece, etc. to be part of the art itself. "In the end I think it's beautiful...some people may think it's atrocious." The running fence as the film ultimately shows it is beautiful. Though the film offers a compelling portrait of the battle to get it done - they end up fighting against the clock to put it up after a ruling declares that he must stop the construction of it at a certain time - what ultimately stands in my mind the most is the unearthly scene at the film's end of a sheep farmer leading his sheep through a break in the fence, amidst a cloud of fog.

The camera serenely pans over the islands of the Biscayne Bay in Florida at the start of Islands, before segueing to a drawing of those same islands encircled in pink fabric; then to Christo walking across the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris, followed by a drawing of it wrapped in fabric; and then to Christo outside of the Reichstag, paired with a drawing of the building wrapped in fabric. Conception is paired with real life, and the film dwells on the often insurmountable hardship that comes with getting life to match the concept. Only the title project, the Surrounded Islands project in Florida, will reach completion during the length of the film, though all three eventually happened. But the battles for all three were happening concurrently, as the daily lives of the Christos seems to be almost constantly overtaken with the travels, meetings and conversations involved with getting their art created. Islands, more than the other films, illustrates these activities, while illuminating the unspoken motivations behind the Christos' most outspoken antagonists. For example, throughout the processing of getting the Surrounded Islands project passed, we see one of the opposing members of the county commission slowly unveil what his real opposition to the project is: that it exists outside of the world of commerce and thus will produce no profit for anyone. The project only proceeds when Christo agrees to give drawings to the county for them to sell, with the proceeds going to preserving the islands. And as in the other films, the end result is gorgeous, and we see the community living with it and reacting to it in a positive way. There are some exceedingly sublime shots of the canvas around the islands from underwater, with the light reflecting through the material. When asked what the project symbolizes to him, he says "before everything, I think it's very a gigantic flower." And so it is...

Though the battle for and completion of the Surrounded Islands project bookends Islands, the other two unfulfilled projects come across as more personal to Christo in a way, as they relate to his own life story. Born and raised in Bulgaria during a time tainted by government suppresion, Christo escaped from there to Paris in the late 1950s. The Pont Neuf thus recalls these days for him, the time when he first threw himself headlong into his art as well as when he first met and fell in love with Jeanne-Claude. These days and the Pont Neuf project are the subject of Christo in Paris. The film has a more ruminative mood for that reason, as we learn of Christo's first steps into art and how they relate to what he's doing now. The film also takes some of the same scenes as in Islands, where Christo and Jeanne-Claude are pursuing the approval of then-mayor Jacques Chirac to get the project done, and stretches them out, giving us more of a sense of the political games being played around the approval of such public works.

The final film of the five, Umbrellas, is the most harrowing. As the Christos' projects are inextricably linked to the world around us, unlike artists who hole up in a room and create something that they then present to the world, it follows logically that their art is affected by all of the pressures and impulses of both nature and civilization. While all of the films detail battles with the latter, Umbrellas is overly concerned with the former. The Umbrellas project - to place yellow umbrellas all over the landscape of a valley in California and blue umbrellas all over the rice fields of a valley in Japan - was the Christos' largest-scale work. It occurs in two countries simultaneously, and thus the process is already fraught with nervous energy just from the fact of Christo and Jeanne-Claude traveling back and forth between two countries during a brief period of time. But the forces of nature take the control out of their hands time and again, from a typhon in Japan that postponed the project through to a freak wind-storm that caused two accidental deaths in California. The film thus has a darker overtone than any of the others, though in the course of telling this rough story it of course reaffirms the inherent beauty in Christo's art and the ways that people relate to it. One especially emotional reaction comes from a woman who looks upon the umbrellas and cries: "I think it's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen except for when I had my daughter." There's people getting married under the umbrellas, schoolkids expressing the desire to eat lunch under the umbrellas or sleep under them, and a shopowner in Japan who states, "even in my shop, I feel like I'm standing inside a painting. When I think about it, I get so happy. I feel like I'm part of a dream." These are heartfelt reactions - their honesty floors you. But what makes them hit even harder is that in watching the filmed depictions of these works of art, you understand exactly how these people feel.

The "5 Films About Christo and Jeanne-Claude" set was made and released by Plexifilm. For more information on Christo and Jeanne-Claude's art, see their web site. Their site includes information on The Gates, their next project, to be realized in February 2005 in Central Park, New York City. From April 6, 2004 to July 25, 2004, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has an exhibit titled "Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Gates, Central Park, New York," which includes preparatory drawings for the project.

Issue 23, May 2004

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