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An Artist Who Thinks Big

Christo’s huge outdoor structures are testament to his desire to remain outside the conventional art world. 

The Mastaba of Abu Dhabi (c) Christo 

Christo likes to think big. If all goes to plan — and in Christo’s world plans are a long time in the making — the next three years will see the building of his biggest art piece to date. In the middle of a desert in Abu Dhabi, 410,000 variously coloured oil barrels will be used to create The Mastaba: a 500ft-tall structure with a base measuring two by three city blocks. It will tower over the ancient Pyramid of Giza, Egypt's largest and oldest wonder, making it the biggest ‘sculpture’ in the world.  

“It will happen,” says Christo, who has recently turned 80 and was the guest of honour at the 2018 BRAFA Art Fair in Brussels in January. “But I’m an eternal optimist. And all projects take time.” 

He isn’t kidding. The Mastaba was conceived some 40 years ago, that time having been spent assessing sites, wrangling with ever-changing authorities, providing documentation and raising money. It’s a pattern he’s used to. His outdoor works are public, expensive to create and truly large-scale. A few examples: 1968’s Wrapped Coast, when one-million square feet of synthetic fabric was used to wrap 1.5 miles of the rocky coast of Sydney; 1975’s Valley Curtain, when 200,200 square feet of orange fabric was stretched across an entire Colorado Valley; 1971’s Wrapped Reichstag, which saw Berlin’s historic seat of government entirely covered in a shiny polypropylene sheet; and 2016’s Floating Piers, when a yellow walkway, suspended by 220,000 high-density inflated cubes, was stretched across Italy’s Lake Iseo from the coast to the island at its centre.  

“Building a floating structure like that isn’t difficult. These works don’t have the same complexity as building, say, a skyscraper or a bridge,” Christo insists. “The difficulty is finding a country that will let you do such a thing, that will let you put a fabric walkway over depths of more than 90m [and then let the public walk on it] without also putting up rails. We’ve realised 23 projects over 50 years, but haven’t got permission for 37. But that’s not bad when you consider you’re dealing with the real world.” 

Wrapped Reichstag faced similar hurdles: the German government turned down the application for the work three times over a 16-year period, until a vote finally accepted Christo’s proposal; more recently, a proposed work on the Arkansas River, on land owned by the US Federal Government, passed through differing levels of support with each administration, from Clinton to Bush Jnr. to Obama, before last year Christo himself finally pulled the plug. “Now we have Trump,” says Christo, who had already spent US$40m on the project. “And he’s a landlord I don’t want to deal with.” 

That’s US$40m of his own money. Although he says he is not independently wealthy, Christo (Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, to use his full name, who worked in collaboration with his French wife Jeanne-Claude de Guillebon for 35 years, until her death in 2009) is a rarity in the art world. He has long operated outside the gallery system, having set up a corporation to sell conceptual and preparatory works to fund the creation of final structures.  

Christo and Jeanne-Claude looking for a site for The Mastaba

“And like a real corporation we work with banks because we need continuous cash flow,” he laughs. “Let’s just say that the art world — collectors, galleries, museums — are notoriously slow payers. It’s one way I’m happy to use the capitalist world.” 

This approach is an expression, he says, of his freedom. “I escaped from Bulgaria when I was 21 [by bribing a railway official to hide him on a goods train] and was eager to be an artist away from community oppression. I wanted to do what all artists want to do: to be outside of any system that uses me or wants control. Besides, what we do is more like urban planning. It’s all far from the gallery world.” 

This, in part, explains the huge public appeal of much of his work, despite the fact that it has remained divisive. Christo says: “People have objected to the works because they’re useless, and it’s only because of that uselessness that the works’ scale, in particular, strikes people as impressive.” Some 250,000 people visited Lake Iseo to see Floating Piers in its first five days.  

What Christo makes doesn’t hang on a wall. It’s not painting. It’s not sculpture either. It is, perhaps, a kind of happening or event: none of Christo’s public works have been in place for much more than a fortnight, and some for considerably less time.  

Does this bother him? Not at all, he says. In part, the fleeting nature of the public stage of each work is a product of the fact that the work is public - so unless he chooses to buy the land, water or building that it involves, or perhaps charge to see the art, which he doesn’t, it inevitably has a brief span. And, a further reflection of his insistence on operating with total freedom, Christo goes further to ensure that each work is freely accessible and outside of the commerce that typically inflects much modern art. 

“You soon find that every square foot of land around the work is owned by somebody,” he says, “so we end up spending sometimes millions to ensure that the site is free [of commerce], so that no-one can take commercial advantage of it.” That might mean, as it has on occasion, a one square kilometre exclusion zone around the work; or, as Christo has done, turning down an approach from the Three Tenors to perform in front of a work. 

But, more than this, the fleetingness of each Christo project is precisely what makes it; it’s what it’s about, if anything. 

“That makes for a short time to experience the work, because we’ll never do it again,” Christo says. “Of course, each project is much, much longer than the time it’s there to view, and it’s widely documented. But I think that brief time, when you can walk on it, touch at it, pull at it, is all the more precious for being brief. But I think that’s true for everything. Now we’re bombarded with the banality of things. It’s the same thing over and over. Yet the fact is that you can’t repeat the moment. It’s here and then it’s gone.” 

This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Ideas Issue, March 2018. To subscribe contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.