Presidential Lectures: Christo & Jeanne-Claude: Essays: Weber
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Reichstag Memories

By John Weber

In retrospect I can imagine few works of art more remarkable than Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Wrapped Reichstag, but when I heard in 1995 that they were finally going to wrap that gray and hulking structure, my first reaction was a sense of mild disappointment. First conceived by the Christos in the early 1970s when the Cold War was still running hot, the project seemed to have missed its time and lost its point after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent dissolution of the East German government in 1990. Nevertheless, as a one-time resident of Berlin and a curator/artist/critic who had never seen any of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's projects in person, I knew I had to go.

Living in Berlin in the early 1980s, I had visited the Reichstag a few times and occasionally asked friends if they thought the Berlin Wall would ever come down. Some responded with an an ironic skepticism. Others just shrugged, clearly uninterested, unable and unwilling to imagine a political scenario that would make the question worth taking seriously. The East Germans might be pressured and shamed into deinstalling the deadly automatic weapons recently rigged up to blast away at anyone venturing across the East German borders, but no one thought they would ever take down the Wall. The idea of capitalist and communist Germanies ever uniting, particularly under capitalism, seemed so outlandish that I can't remember it even coming up.

In that context, wrapping the Reichstag was loony, brilliant, utopian, and interesting precisely because it was so clearly impossible. Six years after the Wall came down, it was hard to see the project retaining its political edge, despite the legendary struggle Christo and Jeanne-Claude had waged to make it happen. Or so I thought.

But the great thing about visual art is that until you see it in person you can't really grasp what it is, how it affects you, and what it might mean. The Wrapped Reichstag was a case in point. I knew it would be big, but nothing prepared me for its stunning visual presence, its drama, and the wholly unanticipated historical metaphor it became.

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Wrapped Reichstag
1995 Christo
Photo: AK Ciesielski

I arrived in Berlin on June the 16th, the day before the wrapping was scheduled to begin, and remained until the day after it was finished on the 24th. The scene around the Reichstag resembled a carnival, complete with sausage stands, souvenir shops, panhandlers, roadside attractions of all sorts, and wannabe performance artists. People who wouldn't have been caught dead in art galleries gawked at the climbers rappelling down the sides of the Reichstag to unfurl the huge rolls of shiny fabric that slowly sheathed its sides. Over the course of the week, they transformed the weathered facades and ungainly volumes into something that looked, from a distance, like a giant, luminescent soap carving, miraculous and confoundingly beautiful. Up close, where you could see its silvery drapery catch the light, the Wrapped Reichstag was alive with each gust of wind. Its color shifted constantly as it picked up the hues of a sky that rarely remained the same for more than an hour or two at a time.

In the crowds around the Reichstag the first thing I noticed was the unusual range of people who had come to see it. The second was how many of them spoke with the unmistakable Berlin accent that one so seldom heard in the West Berlin of the 1980s, or even the early 1990s, an accent still common on the Eastern side of the Wall. And this brought home one of the most remarkable things about the Wrapped Reichstag: perhaps more than any event since the opening of the Wall itself, it served as an historic marker of the unification of East and West. It was an event the citizens from East and West could claim equally as theirs, a shared cultural phenomenon that would mark the subsequent refurbishing of the Reichstag, and the return of the national government to Berlin.

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Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin,1971-95
Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Photo: Wolfgang Volz

By sheathing the house of failed and stillborn German democracies of the Kaiser era and Weimar, Wrapped Reichstag posed the question of what the new Germany would become upon its unveiling. Like a magnet it drew Germans from both East and West. And in a manner no one could have anticipated, it raised the looming question of what their new democracy would become. This was more than anyone could have hoped for from an artwork, yet this is what Wrapped Reichstag achieved.

I am convinced that Wrapped Reichstag is one of the great artworks of the 20th century. It represented a unique confluence of historical site, circumstances, and monumental artistic vision, resolved with absolute formal perfection on a scale that remains mindboggling. Its historical resonance was centrally German, yet by implication it referenced the tenuous political situations confronting post-communist countries throughout eastern Europe, and thereby, the world.

But before, and after anything that can be said about it, Wrapped Reichstag was splendid, gorgeous, and otherworldly. When I saw it finished, rain-soaked and glistening in the summer sun, I thought to myself, "It's incredible! And they're totally out of their minds."

John Weber is the Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Programs, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He journeyed to Berlin for the wrapping of the Reichstag in 1995.

1998, John Weber


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