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Installation artist Christo says freedom is the enemy of possession

Christo's installations are often larger than life: a huge sheet covering the German parliament or islands surrounded by floating fabric. The artist talked with Deutsche Welle about some of the big ideas behind them.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude stand before a harbor

Christo and wife Jeanne-Claude worked together for decades

Contemporary installation artist Christo turns 75 this week, less than a year after the loss of his wife and artistic partner Jeanne-Claude. Deutsche Welle spoke with Christo about how he is moving forward with his work and what he thinks about its reception.

Two museums in Germany - the Kunsthalle Wuerth and the Max Ernst Museum in Bruehl - are currently displaying some of his works.

Deutsche Welle: You had such a symbiotic relationship with Jeanne-Claude. How is it for you to continue work now on the projects you had planned together?

Christo: We always knew that one of us would be the first to go, and we've known that for almost the last 50 years. Ever since we met in 1958, we've always traveled in separate planes so that one of us would be able to finish the work we started.

So, everything was in some way already prepared. These projects take so long to get permission and to realize that we always envisioned this was possible.

Many people struggle to understand the concept that you don't work for money. What does it say about our society that people have so much trouble grasping that you do art simply to create new art?

The German Reichstag building is covered in a huge sheet in one of Christo's installations

"Wrapped Reichstag" (1995) was realized 24 years after its conception

This relates to the way I was brought up and educated in Bulgaria under communism. Basically, the projects deal in large part with freedom.

Of course, I do make money by selling the preparatory drawings and studies for the projects. On paper, I put down my visions, Jeanne-Claude's visions, our visions. I also produce a variety of tangible goods to create the funds necessary to build projects that cannot be bought and cannot be owned - even Jeanne-Claude and I don't own them.

The projects are about freedom. Freedom is the enemy of possession, and possession is equal to permanence. You know, humans like to be in the presence of things that are unique like they are - things that won't happen again. The projects have a quality of fragility and tenderness, like our own lives or our own childhood. They cannot be substituted or repeated.

But how much of a problem do you think our society has in understanding what you're trying to do with your work?

I would never think about that myself. We like to build these projects because we enjoy it for ourselves, like any true artist. Any artist - an abstract painter, a watercolorist, whoever - enjoys and lives to do the work. The projects begin from an almost visceral desire to realize something because you think it's beautiful. If somebody likes the work, it's almost like a bonus - an additional dimension.

These projects deal with a very wide variety of aesthetic dimensions. A 3-D work of art is different from a painting with a flat surface. With a sculpture, you can move around it, you perceive the volume and dimensions. But all of that space is entirely designed by the artist, who exercises an absurd amount of control over the space.

Now, there's another space we think very little about. The moment you walk out of your home, somebody else designed the sidewalk, the roads and the lights. Basically 24 hours a day, we're in a highly planned space that we don't even think about. In our work, we more or less borrow that space and create a gentle disturbance for a few days. By doing so, we inherit everything inherent to that space, and it becomes a part of the work of art.

You just turned 75. That's significant in many ways, isn't it?

Visitors stroll under large orange gates designed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in New York

"The Gates" (2005) in New York City cost $21 million, raised entirely by the artists


At least I'm still alive (laughs) - but I really don't think about that. I've lived in the same building for 46 years. I climb 90 steps about 15 times a day - I don't have an elevator.

Do you perhaps want to do something permanent at this stage in your life?

I do a lot of things that are permanent - a lot of drawings, sketches, collages, and sculptures. They're permanent and in museums. I'm not against the idea of things existing permanently. For instance, each time a big project is finished and removed, it has its own documentation exhibition that tells the story of the project. There are scale models, cables, fabric, and samples.

These exhibitions do not substitute for the projects. They're about the projects. But through them, you should see connections to all the works - they're connected, they're not separate. The reality of these large projects is that there are so many different levels of perception involved. I think this is the body of our work together - it cannot be separate.

Interview: Breandain O'Shea (gsw)
Editor: Kate Bowen

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