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  • Christian Hain

Un-/Veiled: Art In the Time of Corona. A Christo & Jeanne-Claude Retrospective at Palais Populaire

first published on This text has been written before the artist's passing in May.

(Berlin.) Since early May, Berlin galleries are allowed to open again under certain restrictions due to the on-going “virus crisis”. Thus, wearing a face mask is obligatory, and patrons need to book a timeslot for their visit online. While most institutions and commercial galleries have opted for a soft re-entry, extending the runtime of shows that started before all the trouble began, and now are busy rewriting their programme for the rest of the year, Deutsche Bank Collection’s Palais Populaire used the involuntary break to install something new. On the first day it was possible again, they’ve opened a retrospective show that had been scheduled for this spring anyway, and – lucky coincidence - it perfectly fits the circumstances. Hardly any artist’s works would feel more appropriate to contemplate from under a face mask than those of wrapping legends Christo&Jeanne-Claude. Saying this..., it is a bank’s art collection after all, and it still feels strange being asked to hide one’s identity here of all places. Only think of all the security guards who suddenly find themselves forced to retrain their most basic instincts, and impose the bank robber look even on distinguished investors! Also take note: not everyone of them thinks it funny, should you arrive in Halloween disguise instead of the boring regular thing (don’t ask....).

After all these years, Berlin citizens still cherish fond memories of Christo’s Reichstag project in 1995, when the artist and his collaborator/assistant/wife Jeanne-Claude (who has since passed away, in 2009) dressed the historical German parliament house in their typical manner. A retrospective of their career should promise a huge success with a lot of visitors here, making Deutsche Bank’s decision to offer free entry during the whole runtime appear all the more laudable, the (PR) idea behind being to comfort the lockdown stricken population with art.

The Wrapped Reichstag earned the couple a lot of fans and even collectors in Germany. Among the latter counts Mr. Thomas Jochheim who calls the installation one of his two favourite Berlin moments, on par with the Kennedy speech in 1963 that he witnessed as a child. Together with his wife Ingrid, he today owns one of the largest C&J-C collections in the world, and for this show, they’ve collaborated with Deutsche Bank in lending most works (you might risk a guess about what financial institution they trust with their non-artistic investments). Despite belonging to the infamous risk group for the “Chinese Flu”, the collectors personally visited the preview, eager to tell many an anecdote about their relationship with Christo and Jeanne Claude that has developed over the years from business to friendship. - Who would have thought, the artist “mixes the best Bloody Marys in all New York City”?!

Not simply aiming at a nostalgic look back, nor to praise a cherished client and collector, this retrospective has been motivated by a brand new installation in another European capital. The wrapping of Parisian Arc de Triomphe was projected to take place this autumn, but, “mince alors”, in the meantime has had to be postponed to September 2021. To help us through the long period of anticipation – it’s like staring at a wrapped parcel that you cannot wait to open even though you know what is inside -, Palais Populaire serves a thorough overview on the artists’ career, involving documentation: photographs and newspaper clippings, original works: early wrapped magazines and objects from the mid-1960s, and often both at the same time: preparatory drawings for the large installations spanning from one of the earliest: Wrapped Coast, Australia, 1969, to the latest, Floating Piers, Lago di Iseo, Italy 2016.

We probably don’t need to describe these installations in detail, certain images and associations are linked to the artists’ names all over the world, but being confronted with them once again, you realize just how brilliant this art is in that it combines two seemingly disparate approaches: Despite the rather abstract concept, the results – and preparatory drawings no less! – are not incompatible with conventional aesthetics, which explains the public success, most if not all projects have met with. Once the routine protests overcome, reactions of masses and general media alike have been enthusiastic, and that’s great publicity for contemporary art as a whole.

Ever again, is it impressive to see, how much work hides behind every finished – and abandoned! – wrapping project. The now almost concluded preparations for the Arc de Triomphe have begun in the 1970s, while the first Reichstag drawings date back to 1983, &ct. Christo hardly ever gives up on an idea, half of the approximately fifty projects, he’s seriously taken into consideration, have ultimately seen the light of day. It teaches a lesson in perseverance, but also reminds of how outer, political, societal, circumstances can decide over the fate of an artwork.

Enabling frequent comparisons between drawing and photograph of the finished “end product”, today’s show proves once more, how meticulously the artist prepares every detail in advance, anticipating the effects of each shadow and every potential air movement.

Some might scoff about the works on paper as mere means to finance the ephemeral installation, merchandising, memorabilia, fan service, and yet, there is something to them, as they exceed the conventional sketch, and occasionally evolve into three-dimensional objects by the addition of tiny wrapped elements.

Considering the ideas behind the concept, the readymade tradition of course plays a role, so do Fluxus and Mail Art, as becomes most evident in the early works. Ultimately, it’s all about taking an existent creation, wrapping it like a parcel - and not posting it.

To wrap, to cover, to veil, a thing generally bears negative connotations, as we seek to dis-cover, to un-veil, the “truth” behind an appearance, and to break through marketing lies that hide the content under an appealing packing. But there is also the phenomenon of a gift made more desirable by its wrapping - would not birthday presents be only half that nice without the paper? A packing often heightens the interest in what lies beyond, underlining the proverbial truth of “wanting a thing is better than having”. All anticipation culminates in the moment, when you finally lay hands on the wrapping, and tear it apart (from when things might only go downhill). Being polite, you’re not supposed to throw the contents away immediately, only the ephemeral packaging will be discarded the morning after.

Every giver adds something of himself to a gift: This is not just “a vase”, it is “the vase, aunt Emily gave us for the wedding - ugly as it is, we cannot throw it away”, which is true no less for objects that already have a long history of their own, from second hand clothes to antiques. When Christo wraps historical sites, he presents (or: “clothes”) them like a gift from the past, unto which we need to show (at least feign) some respect and gratitude, even if it comes with a burden. More fundamentally, every artwork can be considered as an artist’s gift to the world, and when Christo wraps other people’s (i.e. architects’) creations, it involves a nod to their original creator. In cases, where the “found” and veiled object is neither a building, nor a bridge or similar, but of natural origins, this not merely implies a transformation process from nature to culture, the artist directs our attention not (only) at himself, not (only) at those trees, at this valley, that river or lake, but also, implicitly, at their initial creation, no matter what forces the recipient chooses to perceive there.

Wrapped, veiled, an object, a building or a site, gets redefined in a new context, and – this admittedly might sound trivial – all art is a beautification of life, while a veil, a dress, and even cosmetics, reach for the same goal. Every disguise has the power to uncover truths, that would otherwise remain hidden, not only “in vino veritas”, but also behind a mask - costume parties can reveal a person’s inner self, be it for the better or the worse...

It doesn’t work in every case. Regarding pictures of Christo’s first Parisian installation, wrapping the Pont Neuf in 1985, this might have been his least overwhelming project so far. At least in photography – and few of us will have witnessed it in person – it seems (too) reminiscent of regular preservation works on a historic monument. Maybe this is one reason, why he’s wanted to return to the city, and (hopefully) will next year. For the future, the artist already pursues new ideas, although he’s abandoned the Colorado river project for good – sometimes, the initial protests prove too powerful for a project, even in a country where “anything goes” (maybe today: “...down the drain”). But first let’s take one more step back: Buildings and natural sites in what could be called a “custom burka” are an impressive sight, yet there is also the drawing of a Wrapped Woman (project for the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, 1968/1997), which will inevitably be interpreted differently now than at the time of its creation. Not only does it evoke the more anthropomorphic sculptures of Tony Cragg (and Loris Gréaud’s wrapped sculpture [I] at the Louvre in 2013), but further going beyond the “body bag/corpse in a rolled carpet” associations, the mere mentioning of a “wrapped”, a “veiled”, female body sounds different today than at a time, when hardly anybody would spare a thought on Muslim extremism, immigration, and clashes between clericalism and the liberty of art in this context. It happens all too often, real life developments changing, overshadowing, indeed: masking, art and its perception.

Then again, there is undoubtably a fascination with the Orient on behalf of the artist - don’t forget: Jeanne-Claude was born in then still colonial French Morocco. One as yet still unrealized project is the Mastaba for Saudi Arabia. The title refers to a different series of works than the wrappings, sculptural installations halfway between oversized toy brick and decapitated pyramid, of which there have been previous manifestations e.g. in London (The London Mastaba on Serpentine Lake, 2018), and Philadelphia (Institute of Contemporary Art, 1968). Like those, the version for the most important “oil nation” of all, will be built from barrels, but as a novelty it is planned to become the artist’s first ever permanent installation.

The Arab term “mastaba” translates to “bench” (thank you, internet), it originally designates a central architectural element in Egyptian pyramids. In Christo’s drawings it could also be described as a large cube, which might still meet with some reserve - think of the Kaaba (and Malevich) influenced “Cube”, German artist Gregor Schneider once put in front of Hamburger Kunsthalle, after a heated controversy kept it out of Venice in 2005.

Whether the future will unveil this or another project, it certainly is a great idea to visit Palais Populaire this summer - if you can make it to Berlin despite all travel restrictions - certainly and an exhibition that offers insights into many aspects of a long, varied, and immensely successful, career in art.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Projects 1963-2020, Works from the Jochheim Collection, 6 May-17 August 2020, Palais Populaire, Berlin



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