Presidential Lectures: Christo & Jeanne-Claude: Essays: Kolmstetter
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All Wrapped Up: Christo and Jeanne-Claude Conquer the Reichstag

By Ursula Kolmstetter

Imagine an iceberg in the middle of Berlin, or the fairy tale castle of Sleeping Beauty, or a spaceship 1. Those were associations people made when they saw Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "Wrapped Reichstag."

For two weeks the Reichstag building changed into something completely different, an artwork that followed its own laws, its own associations and that had its own beauty.
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Wrapped Reichstag.
©1995 Christo.
Photos: Ursula Kolmstetter

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The artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who have lived in New York with their son Cyril since 1964, are famous for their previous grand-scale urban and rural artworks, such as Running Fence in California (1972-76); Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Florida (1980-83); and The Umbrellas, Japan-USA (1984-91). After Michael Cullen, a Berlin historian, sent them a postcard in 1971 suggesting that they wrap the Reichstag, Christo and Jeanne-Claude worked for 24 years to seek permission from the German parliament.

On Sunday, June 25, 1995, the idea was finally realized. When the artwork was finished and the construction fence went down at 5 a.m., the northeast side of the wrapped monolith glistened in the morning sun like a glacier. People were already waiting to be among the first to actually touch the fabric. That Sunday alone, 600,000 visitors from all over the world came to pay homage to Christo, Jeanne-Claude and their art project.

Small private planes and helicopters flew above the Reichstag throughout the day. Visitors had paid the pilots to see the wrapped roof and inner courtyards as well. People brought blankets and picnics; music was playing everywhere and pantomimes were doing their shows. Whole families, including a one-week-old baby, had their pictures taken in front of the Wrapped Reichstag. Everyone was enthusiastic, cheerful! Many were involved in talks with the monitors and many questions were answered. "Cool," "fantastic," and "genial" were comments people made -- depending on their age -- about the gigantic, wrapped, dilapidated national building. At first sight, they could not believe their eyes. The first 250,000 out of 1,150,000 fabric samples were given to visitors as souvenirs and to discourage people from coming with knives or scissors to cut a trophy out of the artwork.

The Bonn government was so enthusiastic about the artwork that Christo and Jeanne-Claude were asked to extend the project. Since all of their art projects are temporary, this was not possible. The building was unwrapped again on July 7 as planned. "Temporary, because it challenges our notion of art to challenge the immortality of art. We make art not out of gold, silver or marble and think it would stay forever. Non-permanent art will be missed," Christo explained during a training session for the monitors. "Also, the artwork cannot stay because it expresses freedom, poetic freedom -- all projects are about freedom. This project cannot be bought or sold, nobody can charge, can sell tickets. Freedom is the enemy of possession," said Christo, forcing us to consider our cultural role as consumers.

The first days it was like theater or performance art when 90 mountain climbers and 120 workers were wrapping the monolith. Although temporary downpours drenched visitors, thousands of people had already made pilgrimages. And when the first of the seventy panels was rolled down, there was huge applause. For the duration of the wrapping, the area around the Reichstag changed to a big magnet for tourists discussing art, the history of the building and having fun.

The weather was not cooperative in the beginning. On some days, the installation needed to be stopped because high winds turned the fabric panels not yet held by the rope into huge sails.

The fabric is a very important aspect in the art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The vulnerability and fragility is translated by the fabric. It creates a great kind of urgency. You want to touch it; it is linked to your senses, very sensual. "[It's] not the act of wrapping [that] is important, but the use of fabric in many different colors and forms," Jeanne-Claude explained. And Christo continued: "Fabric was always a great inspiration for thousands of years, in marble, bronze, wood and other material. The rich falls in the walls of the Wrapped Reichstag have a dramatic expression, they reflect the falls, pleats and drapery you can see in the Pergamon Museum."

Tailored with a precision one can usually only find in haute-couture clothing, the 100,000 square meters (119,603 square yards) of fabric were held in place by 15,600 meters (17,060 yards) of blue rope. The entire fabric was coated with only 4 kg (8.82 lbs.) of aluminum, using a special technique called monomolecular method. On June 16 seventy panels of the fabric, each panel averaging 37 by 40 meters (l21.4 x 131.2 ft.) and each weighing almost a ton, were lifted up by five huge cranes on top of the roof. The actual wrapping started on June 17. The entire international press was there, and small, unmanned, remote-controlled helicopters that looked and sounded like big wasps were filming for various TV stations.

Two times more material was used than was needed, which allowed deep vertical pleats that cascaded down. Because there is always some wind around the Reichstag, the wind was playing with the pleats of the fabric, causing a quiet movement.

The color of the fabric and the many deep vertical pleats created a dramatic contrast between light and shadow. This shape transformed the building into a new form. "The wrapping of the Reichstag was like building a building," says Christo.

At a press conference, a reporter from a Jerusalem newspaper asked the artists if they would wrap the Knesset. "The Reichstag is the third and last building we wrapped. We have too many other projects to do. We cannot always wrap buildings. Otherwise we would be called the wrappers," Jeanne-Claude answered.

This project cost $13,000,000, everything financed by the artists themselves through selling their drawings, collages, and scale models of their projects. "All projects are inspired through personal ideas that give the freedom of the work. Freedom, because when it comes down to it, does not have to be justified," explains Christo.

The Reichstag building, a Victorian-style Renaissance Baroque hodgepodge built in 1884, was burned under Hitler's reign, partly destroyed during World War II and reconstructed in the l960s, but remained unused by German politicians. In 1989, the Berlin Wall, which ran right behind the east side of the Reichstag, crumbled down. The building became significant again, standing for freedom, democracy, and East-West reunification. Now that the Wrapped Reichstag project is finished, the surroundings will totally change. Many government buildings will be erected in the space around the Reichstag, the future parliament will have completely moved in by the year 2000 and the time and open space of the Wrapped Reichstag happening will only be in our memories.

1 This commentary is based on an article which first appeared in NUVO Newsweekly (July 27-Aug. 3, 1995). The article was revised by Jeanne-Claude, with the permission of Ursula Kolmstetter.

Ursula Kolmstetter is Head Librarian of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. During the Reichstag wrapping and while the site was open to the public she served as one of the on-site Monitors, talking with the public and answering questions about the project.

©NUVO Newsweekly


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