after viewing an early-wrapped work

You’ve probably seen Christo’s big work, the Gates of Central Park, and all the big big installations.

But why the wrapping?

This is from the info on MOMA’s website about Christo:

Artistic partnership. Christo [Christo Javacheff] (b Gabrovo, Bulgaria, 13 June 1935), an American artist of Bulgarian birth, studied at the Fine Arts Academy in Sofia (1953–6), after which he spent six months in Prague. There he encountered Russian Constructivism, which impressed him with its concern for monumental visionary structures. He escaped first to Vienna, studying briefly in 1957 at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste, and in 1958 to Paris. Like his contemporaries, Christo rebelled against abstraction, seeing it as too theoretical and proposing in its place a manifestly physical art composed of real things. Christo began by wrapping everyday objects, including tin cans and bottles, stacks of magazines, furniture (e.g. Wrapped Chair, 1961; New York, Jeanne-Claude Christo priv. col., see 1990–91 exh. cat., p. 54), automobiles, or various objects such as Wrapped Luggage Rack (1962; New York, Jeanne-Claude Christo priv. col., see 1990–91 exh. cat., p. 56). From 1961 he collaborated with his wife, Jeanne-Claude [née de Guillebon] (b Casablanca, 13 June 1935). Industrial materials, usually polypropylene sheeting or canvas tarpaulins held in place with irregularly tied ropes, were used for the wrappings. The use of fabric sometimes involved wrapping an object, sometimes a bundle; these coverings partly obscured the object’s contours and hampered its function, thus transforming it into an aesthetic presence. In 1964, just after moving to New York, this repertory of forms was augmented by a series of life-sized store fronts, for example Store Front (1964; New York, Jeanne-Claude Christo priv. col., see 1990–91 exh. cat., p. 67), the view through their plate-glass windows blocked by hanging fabrics or by sheets of paper stretched across their fronts, again rendering their function uncertain.

This is the item that we saw at MOMA that got me thinking. Notice the scale (size).

Christo (Christo Javacheff). Package on Wheelbarrow. 1963

Yes, everyone has to start somewhere. This is from 1963. But I think that the significance of the wrapped items in the wheelbarrow are from his early life:

He was playful and curious in his childhood, but his life became disturbed at an early stage with the invasion of Bulgaria by the Nazis. Christo’s childhood was spent in fear of the Nazis who occupied the Soviets until the end of World War II.

And here’s another fascinating insight:

On January 10, 1957 he left communist Eastern Europe from Czechoslovakia and, concealed in a transport wagon together with fifteen other deserters, he illegally fled to Western Europe – Austria. The atmospheric description of the scene carries the mood of melancholy, daunting anticipation, and irreversible past: “It was the coldest winter in Christo Javacheff’s memory…A knifelike wind howled outside…No one spoke as the door locked behind them. There was no turning back.”2

This article about Christo in Bulgaria further states:

The strangest fact about Christo’s identity is that since he escaped to the West he has never returned to his homeland since he escaped from the country and does not speak Bulgarian anymore — not even to his brothers. Christo’s excuses for this kind of attitude are various: from the explanation that he is totally focused on his art and does not have time to travel to the suggestion that he has forgotten how to speak his mother-tongue although when he speaks English he has a distinctive Bulgarian accent. The strategy of denying his national identity opens up for Christo the doors of the international art scene. At the same time, his success in the global art world encourages the local Bulgarian artistic setting to regard him as its ambassador and hero. However, the attempt to completely obliterate his own roots and repress the memory of the country where he was born and grew up is a sign of a deeply traumatic experience, which is also reflected in his art.

In order to understand the relationship between trauma and Christo’s art it is important to look at the way his career can be divided into three periods. During his time in Bulgaria he was mostly preoccupied with drawing realistic portraits, while in Paris he got “obsessed” with wrapping objects. Finally, Christo established himself as an international artist when he moved to New York through the gigantic projects done in collaboration with his wife Jeanne-Claude. The relocation from different geographic positions was significant for the development and evolution of Christo’s art. Every time he moved from a place he had to adapt to the conditions of the new cultural and artistic environment, which inevitably involved feelings of trauma and nostalgia, always accompanied by the notion of memory. Therefore, we can see his most recent projects as the final phase of an artistic evolution–as historical monuments, carrying the memory of every place the artist has “conquered” and moved away from. By investigating the dawn of Christo’s career, his first artistic period in Bulgaria, we can get closer to a “forgotten” memory and discover the origins of his art and the basis for the later transformations of his artistic ideas.

And further on, the author gets to the wrapping:

Christo himself has admitted the importance of communism for his art. During his time at the Academy of Arts fine art students were sent as youth-brigade workers – for compulsory “voluntary” work in farms and fields, to help farmers create an agricultural landscape bordering the route of the Orient Express (the only railway connecting the West and the East), in order to impress travelers from capitalist countries. This practice was the Bulgarian version of “Potemkin village,” described by Fitzpatrick in his studyStalin’s Peasants as “the state’s idealized and distorted representation of rural life…the real-life counterpart of the discourse of socialist realism in literature and the arts.”8  In his authorized biography Christo refers to this experience as a subconscious precedent of his encounter with the act of wrapping: “Bales of hay and equipment were displayed on each side of the railroad tracks. Sometimes the items were wrapped in tarpaulin and tied up for protection or concealment.”9

In fact, the practice of wrapping up hay in agrarian countries is not for concealment, but only for protection. Haystacks are usually covered (not wrapped) by tarpaulin and secured with ropes, preventing the straw from being blown away. Therefore, we can ask ourselves the question: “Was it the physical and social act of wrapping of the haystacks or the Communist state’s political covering of the true social conditions that had an impact on Christo’s art?”

I don’t think we can escape our beginnings, but if we’re really lucky, we can make them very significant indeed.

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3 responses

    • The piece itself made so much sense. His later work always made me curious why he would think about doing such a technique. Did you read the whole article about Christo and Bulgaria? It’s quite fascinating!

  1. Pingback: Yes, so much depends upon that wheelbarrow, doesn’t it? | But Mostly Hers

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