The immediacy and the durability of art – remembering the gift of Christo and Jean-Claude.

Few contemporary artists have sparked our imaginations like Christo and Jean-Claude. Now both are gone. I look forward to a series of retrospective exhibitions and moving image dedications. Art for everyone…..

Patricia Fenner (Assoc Prof, Art Therapy, La Trobe University)

This week we mourn the death of Christo. Adam Geczy (Senior Lecturer, Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney) writes for The Conversation suggestion that In remembering Christo, we remember what art once was. Christo’s work has been reverberating through my imagination and experience for the past 35 years, reminding me of the passing of time and the unpredictable joy that can be found in the unqualified experience of participation in the world.

There is an ephemeral quality to our human experience as it passes from the present moment into the past. Indeed, Yi-Fu Tuan claims that whilst our lived human experiences have immediacy they lack permanence. Art lends the quality of durability to our transient lived experience and offers a remedy for the experience of loss that is inherent in each passing moment. Tuan goes as far as to suggests that we engage with art in order to render a sense of order and coherence whilst dwelling in the chaos of loss. In mourning Christo’s passing I am remembering the ways in which his work has helped me to make sense of the world and my desire to make art. This is something that explored in my PhD, Healing art and the art of healing.

Figure 1. Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Pont Neuf Wrapped, 1975-1985. Paris. Photograph by Wolfgang Volz

On a summer day in 1985, as I walked near the Pont Neuf in Paris I saw a man standing on a pontoon in the middle of the Seine attempting to wrap the bridge with golden fabric that shone like satin. It was intriguing to watch the process and to wonder how and why he came to be doing this. Working with a system of pulleys and ropes, he seemed to be orchestrating a performance more than making a thing. Here in an open and public space this artist was engaging us as casual bystanders with something that was beautiful and temporal. As the artist, Christo, struggled with the large volumes of golden fabric, the wind would catch them and they would billow like sails, only to be pulled back into line in response to his desire and command. Christo was working with the fabric, the bridge and the natural forces of gravity and the elements to create an offering for the people of Paris.

Watching the work unfold I was aware of the dynamic relationship that existed between this man and the materials. I was also aware of his vulnerability as he invited us all to view that which he was still only capable of imagining. The artist was not only making the work but seeing the birth of the work in the way the creation responded to all the forces at play: the materials, the forces of nature, the form and structure of the bridge, his own movements and the presence of those who were watching. Being able to see what was happening with all of these elements was crucial to his capacity to make the work possible, but his willingness to invite us to share in a moment when possibility still lies open was extraordinary. In doing so he navigated mystery and the power imbalance that had previously separated the artist and the viewer in my mind. Our experience of this work was somehow shared rather than separate. Christo let us in on the secret of how this was done and challenged me to see that art could be as Tim Winton describes the gift of surfing, “something completely pointless and beautiful”. For me, it needed no explanation. Christo and his partner Jean-Claude had challenged my definition of art by inviting me into a transcendent experience with material objects. They had shown me that the intricacies of the roles and relationships in art-making and viewing were more fluid than I had imagined whilst affirming the power of art to evoke a strong response in me as a viewer.

When I witness thematerial presence of a painting I am aware that something has drawn the maker of the work to take up raw materials and respond in a particular way. The marks that have been left on the canvas for me to see convey something about the sensory experience involved in the making of the work, in the same way that the billowing fabric over the Pont Neuf awakened me to the warm and gentle wind of a summer’s day in Paris.

Libby Byrne, 2016.
Figure 2. Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005. Photo: Wolfgang Volz

Twenty years on…

Twenty years on and the installation of The Gates in New York’s Central Park was completed in February 2005.

The 7,503 gates with their free-hanging saffron colored fabric panels seemed like a golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees….The people of New York continued to use the park as usual. For those who walked through The Gates, the saffron colored fabric was a golden ceiling creating warm shadows. When seen from the buildings surrounding Central Park, The Gates seemed like a golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees and highlighting the shape of the meandering footpaths.

© Christo
Figure 3. Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005. Photo: Wolfgang Volf

From my home in Melbourne, Australia I had heard about The Gates and for a few weeks I talked often about how much I wanted to go to New York, but I didn’t have the time or money to make this possible. What I did have however, was friends who cared enough to listen to my longing and wonder what I might be imagining and how that might be drawing me toward some form of pilgrimage. Reflecting on the theological significance of Christo’s Gates, Doug Adams suggests that, “The gate…is a threshold to cross: to transcend what is known and to pilgrimage into new territory. The very ability to transcend the familiar and venture into the unknown implies freedom.. As they imagined what could be igniting my desire to want to see and walk through The Gates in New York, my friends in Melbourne decided to venture into new territory in their experience of our relationship by choosing to visit my house in an unfamiliar way. One night they arrived in secret and under the cover of darkness, to wrap my letterbox in fabric that sang to with the sparkling brilliance of Christo’s saffron gates.

Figure 4. Rachel Hanslow-Sells and Micol Tunley, Letterbox wrapped: A homage to The Gates!, 2005. Photo: Libby Byrne

As I stepped out of the front door and into a new day the next morning, the joy of this sight took my breath away. I savoured the light that shone through fabric that hung in the trees transporting both the artists and now me the viewer, into a new an unfamiliar place. We had made a pilgrimage together and in truth the desire to ‘go there’ had unified our imagination and experience in the world as we knew it together in Melbourne, 2005. This week I sent the photograph of their work to the artists and we shared the joy and fun of this moment once more. I was pleased to hear about the thrill of anticipation they experienced in doing something so strangely unexpected and surprising.

In speaking of The art of paying attention, Tim Ingold suggests that, “Truth is the unison of imagination and experience in a world to which we are alive and that is alive to us. That means that truth depends on our full and unqualified participation in the world…which is not the same as objectivity.”

Objectively, it is evident that I did not ever manage walk underneath The Gates in New York, but in truth, my experience of seeing the Pont Neuf Wrapped in 1985 has always fuelled my imagination in such a way that it has become unified with my experience of the world to which I have been alive, and which has been alive me to me, first in 1985, then in 2005 and now again in 2020. As Patricia Fenner says, Christo and Jean-Claude’s art is for everyone – and in its ephemeral and temporal beauty it wraps us together with the durability of desire for an unqualified experience of participation in the world.

Libby Byrne

One thought on “The immediacy and the durability of art – remembering the gift of Christo and Jean-Claude.

  1. Pingback: The immediacy and the durability of art – Libby Byrne

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