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Artistic duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude fought long and hard to wrap the German Reichstag building in their signature fabric. Photographer Wolfang Volz recalls the ultimate highs and lows.
Spread out with their picnic blankets on the large lawn in front of the Reichstag building, thousands of onlookers marvel at the sight of golden evening light reflecting off the fabric that cocoons the building. It is one of many iconic images of the epic public installation that defined Berlin's fairy tale summer of 1995.
"This was and still is an outstanding project in the gallery of the projects by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, if only because no other project attracted so many visitors," Wolfgang Volz, the artist couple's exclusive photographer and project manager for the Wrapped Reichstag installation, told DW.
Within two weeks, 5 million people from all over the world came to Berlin to see the wrapped building, a landmark structure steeped in symbolism and history. It was a record number of visitors for a cultural event in such a short period of time.
700-page constuction application
Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude had to fight for 23 years to realize this spectacular art action.
"It was of course an absolutely crazy feeling to suddenly see what had taken many years to plan to finally be turned into reality," Volz recalls. "We employed a total of 1,500 people, 90 of whom were climbers, who had to spread out our panels under dangerous circumstances. That was an incredible challenge for me."
When wrapping the Reichstag building was given the green light, Volz, who had been working with Christo and Jeanne-Claude since 1971, took over project management for the first time because he was a native German speaker. "It was a shock and a great challenge," he says of taking on the role. "I had to learn all about fire safety laws in no time at all, and our construction application for the wrapping was 700-pages thick."
On June 23, 1995, the last heavy sheets of fireproof plastic material were lowered onto the facade of the building. In total, the professional climbers had spread around 100,000 square meters (1,076,000 square feet) of fabric over the Reichstag building before it was completely cocooned. They tied it up tightly with kilometerslong ropes so that the contours of the building were still visible.
"We were involved with a sleeping beauty, something that was a mausoleum until being resurrected in 1989," Christo told journalists at the time. "But then we had the great luck of approaching it at a critical transitional moment, when no one knew how it would be used in the next century."
From the Wrapped Pont Neuf in Paris to the Wrapped Sydney Opera House, Christo and Jeanne-Claude never disguised their objects beyond recognition. Instead, they aimed to elicit curiosity about what lies within, or what Christo biographer David Bourdon called "revelation through concealment." This is particularly true of the Wrapped Reichstag.
Volz says that every installation is strongly tied to the historical moment in which the exhibition has taken place. "In the case of the Reichstag, that was clearly after reunification. It fitted in perfectly with the philosophy that the project enveloped history and then released it again so that a new history could emerge from it."
Christo (l) and Wolfgang Volz (r) in 2013 at an exhibition about the 'Wrapped Reichstag' installation
Symbol of freedom
The Reichstag building contains many layers of history.
It was built at the end of the 19th century by Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German emperor. The first German Republic was proclaimed at the site on November 9, 1918. On the evening of February 27, 1933, the Reichstag fire occurred. On April 30, 1945, two Red Army soldiers raised the red flag of the Soviet Union as a symbol of their victory over Nazi Germany.
Followning the division of the country, the building lay in West Germany, right next to the Berlin Wall. In the 1960s, it was first refurbished for art exhibitions and events.
Reunification was celebrated there in 1990, and nine years later, the German Bundestag once again started meeting in the building, after it had been rebuilt by the British architect Norman Foster and fitted with walk-in glass dome.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ultimately enabled Christo and Jeanne-Claude to realize their dream. "We were really naive to believe from 1971 until 1989 that we could realize the project while the GDR [German Democratic Republic] existed, with border guards watching as the fabric would have been spread out," says Wolfgang Volz. "That would never have worked."
This building that was so steeped in history fascinated Christo as a symbol of freedom, a central theme in the art of the refugee from communist Bulgaria. As independent, self-financed artists, he and Jeanne-Claude remained free spirits whose passion projects were funded by selling sketches, collages and signed photographs. Their ephemeral works were also literally free to the public, remaining in view for two weeks before they disappeared forever.
Heated debate in the German Parliament
The concept for the wrapped Reichstag building was accompanied by fierce controversy, having been rejected three times by the Bundestag. As the great symbol of the German state, the Reichstag building should not polarize through a controversial artistic action, members of the conservative Christian Democratic Party (CDU) said during debates in the then-capital of West Germany, Bonn.
But in 1989, the new president of the Bundestag, Rita Süssmuth, was of the opinion that the veiling would make the ambivalent history of the building more transparent. "Without her," says Volz, "the wrapped Reichstag would never have come to be."
It was a great moment for the artistic duo when the Bundestag finally voted for the art action on February 25, 1994: "We have won," Christo exclaimed with relief after the vote.
Christo's Reichstag collection of sketches, models, photos and fabric remnants was purchased in 2015 by the entrepreneur and patron of the arts, Lars Windhorst. Many of the objects are on 20-year loan to the Bundestag and are part of a permanent exhibition in the Reichstag building.
"Christo was always looking to the future," says Volz. Before the artist died on May 31, 2020, he had been negotiating for the upcoming wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Volz is currently discussing how to proceed after the installation was postponed until next year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Christo's nephew Vladimir Javacheff is also assisting Volz with the project. "We are determined to make the best of it," says Volz. "We owe it to Christo and Jeanne-Claude."