Remembering Jeanne-Claude

Events Trends & Culture - March 19th, 2010

by Owen Schaefer

In a curious example of artistic eccentricity, the husband and wife artist team of Christo and Jeanne-Claude routinely refused to fly in the same plane together, reasoning that if one of them should ever crash, the other would survive to continue their work. Sadly, it was not the dramatic plunge of an aircraft that took the life of Jeanne-Claude last November, but tragic complications due to an aneurism. And Christo was, indeed, left to carry on alone.

With that in mind, the 21_21 Design Sight exhibition Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Life=Works=Projects is as much a glimpse of the future as it is a retrospective, and a reminder that future works will still bear Jeanne-Claude’s touch, even if it is Christo’s name that tends to be remembered.

Issey Miyake, one of the gallery’s directors, was a personal friend of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, which goes part of the way to explaining why artists who never created products of any kind end up featured in a design gallery. But life=Works=Projects is curiously at home here, largely due to its focus on process as much as the artworks themselves. After all, when public and private space become both the exhibition site and a part of the canvas, the role of the artist overlaps with that of the designer, calling for real-world research, negotiation and solutions.

While Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s works are renowned for their sheer size—the draping and wrapping of Paris’s Pont Neuf bridge in fabric, or the fluttering orange gates placed along every path of New York’s Central Park— what becomes more apparent in this show are the enormous timescales involved. A wall-sized chart in one room plots time lines of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s works, with planning periods that sometimes stretch into decades, while viewing periods last merely weeks or sometimes even hours.

Putting on a Christo and Jeanne-Claude exhibition is understandably problematic, since the majority of their works are temporary. However, when it comes to photographing the event, the duo have worked almost exclusively a single photographer, Wolfgang Volz, who captures the grandeur and scope of their past projects wonderfully, and whose work is very nearly reason enough to attend the show. Volz’s rich images occupy most of a stretch of wall on their own, and bring life to the installations most viewers very likely missed.

But the exhibition also includes a number of Christo’s smaller wrapped objects, along with a number of drawings and collage works. His collages are often three-dimensional, incorporating combinations of real fabric and twine along with drawings, photographs and maps of possible locations. Christo creates these both as proposals and blueprints for larger projects, but they are also sold as a means of funding larger projects.

Key among the drawings in this show are plans for two new and ambitious projects: Over The River, a plan to essentially shelter a stretch of the Arkansas River with fluttering silver-blue fabric, and The Mastaba for UAE, a 150-meter tall pyramid-like structure to be built entirely of oil drums.

It is difficult, and ultimately unnecessary, to pin down Jeanne-Claude’s exact contributions to each project, since the couple always considered themselves a single artistic entity. But for a more personal sense of her role, Life=Works=Projects also includes several hours of documentary video, showing a number of projects being hammered out in the real world. Many of the films are an hour long or more, making it impossible to see all of them. But they offer a random glimpse of both artists at work, together and apart. And these human touches bring to life not only the enormous engineering challenges they faced together, but the small tender moments and everyday hassles, rounding out the sense of the show as a fitting memorial.

Show: Christo and Jeanne-Claude:
Life=Works=Projects (to Apr 6)
Gallery: 21_21 Design Sight (Roppongi station)
Hours: 11am–8pm (closed Tue)
Admission: ¥1,000 Tel: 03-3475-2121