Christo, Art and Being Human

I bumped into my friend Christo at Art Dubai this weekend.

He was in Dubai to talk about his incredible projects and the challenges of getting governments to approve them.

For those of you who don’t know, Christo is unique. He fled Bulgaria in the 1950s, made it to Paris where he met his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, and quickly established himself as one of the foremost artists of our time.

His work is astonishing.

He produces monumental projects, sometimes wrapping giant structures or disrupting a landscape with fabric. Or he’ll use other objects, such as barrels.  They are usually temporary.

He is a man who embraces the real, tangible world with boundless energy. He said to me: “My projects are about the real things.  The real wind. The real wet. The real dry. The real things. Not photographs. I don’t know how to use a computer. Not flat surface. Not propaganda. But the real things.”

And he pays for them himself. Christo will never take a commission. He pays for his projects by selling preparatory drawings and sketches, which can fetch many millions of dollars. Such is the demand for his work.

I would call Christo a true citizen of the world. He lives in Manhattan, one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan places you can imagine. But he is usually to be found on a plane, or lecturing, overseeing projects and exhibitions, and meeting collectors.

When he is in the UAE he spends his time in the desert exploring the landscape and getting to know the environment where he is proposing to build the Mastaba, a giant sculpture that will be bigger than the Eiffel Tower and the pyramids.

I suspect the key to Christo’s amazing success and vision is his restless energy. He tells me he rises early, usually skips lunch, spends most of the day on his feet and is always busy. When he’s in New York he’s in his studio. When he’s not he’s travelling.

It was this relentless urge to move and create that led him from communist Bulgaria to the Paris arts scene of the ’60s, and then to the throbbing cosmopolis of New York in 1964.

Not only is Christo a global citizen par excellence, but his massive artworks act as a kind of global magnet, drawing people from all corners of the planet together.

When he wrapped the Reichstag in 1995, 5 million people went to see it. His project last year in Italy, the Floating Piers, drew 1.2 million people. There were visitors from pretty much every country in the world, drawn together by the power of an idea. In this case a profoundly moving and visually dramatic work of art disrupting the normal tranquility of Lago D’Iseo with three miles of brightly covered orange walkways.

When millions of people are drawn together by the power of a single artwork I think it is fair to say that the beautiful and profound transcend any apparent differences in ideology, religion or identity.

And I think this is important. As we are seemingly divided further and further by petty politics and divergent world views, the simple pleasure of appreciating an artwork becomes something that connects us.

So bravo to Christo! And long may this incredible 81-year-old continue to remind us that beneath it all we are all the same. We are all human.

Photo credits: Wolfgang Volz, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Floating Piers, Lake Iseo, Italy, 2014-16

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