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The Real and the Revealed

By Anthony Bond

Editor's note: At the request of the artists and with the kind permission of the author, all references to the artist "Christo" have been changed to "Christo and Jeanne-Claude" or words to that effect wherever appropriate.

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Wrapped Coast
©1969 Christo
Photo: Harry Shunk

The discussion of the Christos' art in Australia has centred around their monumental project Wrapped Coast - One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia, 1969.1 This significant work coincided with the emergence of Conceptual Art in Sydney and the two events have been directly linked (by Daniel Thomas in An Australian Accent, 1984). While the major projects of Christo and Jeanne-Claude are undoubtedly related to Conceptual Art in their manipulation of political and economic institutions, the Christos have never been allied to any specific movement or group. There have clearly been points of common interest with American Earth Art and Installation Art, yet the Christos' path has been a unique one whose roots are more European than American.

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Wrapped Cans and Bottles
©1958-59 Christo
Photo: Eeva Inkeri

This exhibition includes sculpture dating from 1958. It thus provides an opportunity to see connections that have not previously been made available to Australian audiences. The early works were made in Paris, which was then still the centre of aesthetic debate. At that time investigations of perception and phenomenology were the predominant theoretical concerns for artists and writers alike. The responses to these ideas were very diverse in practice but they certainly influenced the future development of art in Europe and America. Although Christo and Jeanne-Claude have never been directly allied to any group of artists it is useful to consider some of the ideas that were current, particularly in Paris in the late fifties.

 At the end of the nineteenth century the Impressionists had turned their backs on an illustrative art of allegory and myth in favour of a response to the world of sensation. The effects of light on natural objects and atmospheric space became more suitable subject matter for them than allegorical figures such as virtue in defense of chastity. This direction must be seen in terms of a new realism. Throughout the twentieth century there have been continuous attempts to recast this quest for "The Real."

 After five years of Analytical Cubism, Picasso introduced found materials into his Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912. This piece of manufactured oil cloth with the image of chair caning printed on it served many purposes, but in the present context it is most significant for its introduction of modern manufactured (hence commonplace) objects from the real world into the frame of art. While Cubism challenged the historical necessity of Renaissance perspective, this small work of 1912 broke the surface of the painted image in a new way. The found object and, more particularly, the manufactured object have become pivotal through Dada, Nouveau Rèalisme, Arte Povera, Pop Art, and Minimalism, and through the many contemporary practices which follow from them. In the mid fifties this process was well advanced. The question that Duchamp posed with readymades such as Fountain, 1917: "What is art?", had become a natural part of the process of thinking through any radical art practice. This questioning of the delineation between art and life offered the opportunity for a new and living relationship between the artist and the viewer in a real environment that went beyond the cloister of the museum and the institution of art.

 When Christo made the first works in this exhibition, one of the most radical movements in Europe was Nouveau Rèalisme.2 These artists used manufactured objects as the material for their art. Their only intervention in the "real" was the choice of objects and the manner of their presentation. In 1961 Dècollage was also gaining attention. These artists collected the layered posters found on billboards throughout Paris and stripped back parts to reveal a rich, essentially random conjunction of images and textures. It was street-life recontextualized in the gallery and a preview of the media collage that was to dominate post-modern debate. All these strategies aim to break the boundaries between a conventionalized fine-art language and the experiences of modern man in daily life. Earlier in the process manufactured objects were incorporated with a view to embracing the reality of modernity and technology. In time, the reference became ambivalent and in some cases predominantly critical. In later years this continuing concern led to an investigation of the nature of language as a code with a dynamic of its own completely independent of the reality it describes but also as an object or phenomenon within that reality. It is one of the Christos' great achievements to have been able to provide a concrete image that gives us access to such philosophical problems which are still valid today.

 The aspect of their work which reveals this most strikingly is the act of wrapping objects, particularly those that have an immovable public site such as architecture, and elements of the land itself. Such projects require enormous preparation and involve taking art into corporate boardrooms and through bureaucratic hierarchies before any practical work can begin. This aspect of their art is, of course, an essential conceptual component in bridging the gap between art and everyday life. It is not this aspect of the work that I wish to discuss however, but the metaphor of the veil or membrane which is involved in nearly all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's projects.

 The veil or drape can be discussed in several different contexts. Three of these are; the veil as a metaphor of the division between the material world and our constructed image of it; the history of drapes revealing that which they purport to conceal; the association of these two connections with desire.

 There is a gulf between the material world and our conception of it. Although all our conceptions arise from our literal participation in the material domain, our perception of it is necessarily limited by the very finite scope of our senses and changed by the conceptual and affective matrix which is the necessary precondition for recognition. The Renaissance architect and scholar Leon Battista Alberti argued that all knowledge proceeds by comparison.

 Each of us has a conception of the material world which arises from the material world and is laid over it, yet the two are different entities, however closely they seem to correlate. It has been an intuition of dreamers that a veil or membrane separates us from reality, our mind cannot touch the material world but only its constructed image. This division provides a strong imaginative charge to images of the veil and related phenomena like the surface of water. It underscores other dualities which are psychologically powerful, such as conscious/unconscious, self/other. Our literature abounds with uses of this imagery. For example, a seagull breaks the surface of the water and for a moment rends a boundary between waking and the world of dreams.

 In Christo and Jeanne-Claude's projects it is the demarcation between material being and our mental image which is pre-eminent and this is reinforced by the drape which reveals. Hellenistic reliefs made full use of the drape to expose the rhythms of the body and to reveal the temporal potential of movement. In this way a glorification of female form could be accommodated in a dynamic heroic context. The classical model presented beauty as dynamic. This was largely expressed through muscular definition and tension. Michelangelo attempted to apply this dynamic tension to the female nude by supplying such musculature but the drape achieves it without denying female grace. The drape has also been a source of fascination for painters, whether it is the simple purity of form that Giotto seeks through his gowns or the elaborate vortices of Mannerist and Rococo Art.

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The Pont Neuf Wrapped
©1985 Christo
Photo: Wolfgang Volz

In the Christos' case we are perhaps a little closer to Giotto because the wrapping of objects often reveals underlying form by unifying the surface. The lines of tension in the fabric also reveal and emphasize significant structures that may not be so clear when the form is uncovered. Leonardo da Vinci made use of the drape to reveal the mass and spatial direction of the limbs of his sitters, for example, the tension folds in a skirt that fall away from the knee or the folds of a sleeve that describe the contour of the arm. Henry Moore found heroic form in the figures huddled under blankets during the blitz in the London Underground. The drawings he made there echo Etruscan and Greek sculptures. The same influence can later be found in his three-dimensional sculptured figures.

 The relationship between wrapping and drawing is an interesting one. The draughtsman, particularly if he is a sculptor, seeks to reveal underlying structures, main blocks of form, and movements in space before becoming involved in surface detail. In some respects the mental process is similar to wrapping. Casting a rope around a form where it can best be secured reveals a logic. This logic is quite different from normal perceptions that are related to other contingencies and extrinsic information about function and contextual expectations, yet it must necessarily relate to the physical structure of the object itself. The draughtsman begins his approach by overcoming his preconceptions about an object in order to discover it anew. It is not surprising, then, that Christo is also a prodigious draughtsman. Much of his work in this exhibition is in the form of drawing, and in the combination of drawing with collage.Although these drawings are usually proposals for projects that are to be realized in the future, and therefore they draw that which is not yet in the world, they are also drawings in the tradition of Henry Moore and Michelangelo and Giotto, revealing structure and scale with extraordinary clarity. A classic test of drawing is to give a drawing of an object by one student to another to see if it can be realized in three dimensions from the information provided in line alone. Christo communicates the essential and the particular in his drawings; the projects are massive cooperative exercises where everyone must understand their common goal. Yet the drawings are far from being dry diagrammatic instructions and stand as works of art in their own right.
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Over The River, Project For Arkansas River, Colorado
Drawing 1992. ©1992 Christo
Photo: Simon Chaput
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Surrounded Islands, Project for Biscayne Bay
Drawing in two parts 1982. ©1982 Christo
Photo: Wolfgang Volz

In some respects the wrapped objects remind us of skin. The skin which defines the physical limits of our being is also the source of touch, the most personal of our senses. In man this skin also encloses the brain, which is responsible for generating the conceptual universe, so that paradoxically, it can he said to exist within the material universe on which it is modeled, and which it in turn models.

 Trapped within this skin we are forced to compare that which is with that which might be in an imaginary ideal universe and hence we feel the overwhelming presence of unfulfilled desire. It is this desire which makes us susceptible to the art of seduction which has always exploited all the manifestations of the veil. The drape which is drawn loosely across her mysteries in classic sculpture of the female nude excites the imagination rather than preserving chastity. Costume often exploits this principal of emphasizing that which it conceals. Concealment implies a secret that may potentially be revealed. This situation provokes the imagination and brings the comparison of reality into play with the ideal. This imaginative comparison is an important critical aspect of Western culture, and one that Duchamp often connected to the erotic.

 There is a close relationship between this erotic desire and our pleasure in reconstructing the world in our mind. Christo and Jeanne-Claude's wrapped objects encourage this process while exposing the gulf which separates us from complete possession of the real world.

1 From: Christo. Sydney: The John Kaldor Art Project; Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1990. Pages 19-23. This catalog accompanied an exhibition held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, and the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth.

2 Editor's note: The earliest works in the Sydney exhibition dated from 1958. Christo and Jeanne-Claude began collaborating in 1961 with the Cologne Harbor pieces.

Anthony Bond is Head Curator of Western Art and General Manager, Curatorial Services, The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.

 ©1998, Anthony Bond


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