Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Last Temptation of Christo

by Drew Martin
Christo has scored some nice spreads this month in large format magazines such as DuJour and Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine. Christo, also known as and used here to reference Christo Vladimirov Javacheff + Jeanne-Claude (R.I.P 2009) are the most ambitious and persistent artists, ever. Their company, C.V.J. Corporation has managed hundreds of millions of dollars to deliver their art projects, and they have often stuck it out through administrations and waited decades for permission to proceed with their large-scale outdoor installations. In 50 years, they realized more than twenty major projects.

To appreciate the scale of their production consider The Umbrellas, which was a project that simultaneously took place in California and Japan in 1991 and required 2,500 workers during installation.

The recent press only scratches the surface of this brilliant career and their most massive project yet, which will be the largest and most expensive art structure in the world. It is called The Mastaba, referring to the shape of benches that were built in front of houses thousands of years ago in ancient Mesopotamia. The word comes from Arabic for a bench of mud but it also references the eternal house - the precursor to the more durable and better built pyramids.

Mastaba will be made from a super-column core with a jacked up shell for the basic trapezoidal shape, and then covered with 410,000 stacked oil barrels, which will be specially be fabricated in a factory moved near the site for this project. The barrels will be coated with durable BASF paint typically reserved for BMW automobiles. The site is part of the Empty Quarter, 130 miles inland in Abu Dhabi of the United Arab Emirates.

Exotic sounding every way you slice it, The Mastaba actually originated as a much smaller piece proposed to MoMA in 1967 in a scope of work that first and foremost included the wrapping the museum, Christo-style. The project was turned down and then a larger mastaba was proposed that same year for a site between Houston and Galveston, but that too went nowhere. The stacking of barrels by the couple came from earlier projects: the stacking and wrapping of barrels on the docks of the Cologne harbor in 1961, and in 
1962, the stacking of 89 oil barrels in a narrow Paris street to protest the Berlin Wall,  which had been built less than a year earlier. Coincidentally, the Wall came down in '89. Nearly half a century later The Mastaba project has grown in every way. It will cost $350 million and will rise 500 feet out of the sand. 

Funding for Christo’s projects is always a question. Not only do the materials cost millions of dollars but installation and de-installation labor can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. On top of that, the sites are not donated spaces from either private or public groups. Christo pays for the use of the locations: three million dollars to New York City for the use Central Park for three months for The Gates, and $160,000 a year to the United States government to rent 42 miles of the Arkansas River for Over the River, the other big pending project. Christo paid for the use of the Reichstag and the Pont Neuf for those two wrapped projects, and for the land in California and Japan for The Umbrellas.  The reason for this is to have the rights and control of the space.

It sounds like a crazy business model: to get lines of credit from banks, sell back basic materials, sell off pieces of the work and profit from the planning sketches of the projects, which may fetch around a million dollars with collectors. Financially speaking, that is like saying you are going to put up 50-story building in mid-town Manhattan and pay for it by selling the architectural drawings. It is not a real practical model for other artists but it fortunately works for Christo. I love the breath-taking and mind-boggling work this couple has created.

If you want to see a really well-organized artist website, and learn more about this approach to projects, check out the Christo and Jeanne-Claude site.