There’s a story about the artist Ray Johnson asking Christo if he could buy a work of his, and Christo responding with a prank: He sent a wrapped package in the mail, which Johnson opened, thus destroying it. A note and photograph inside the package revealed Johnson’s mistake. This anecdote seems a telling way to read Christo’s work, even his most recent decision to cancel “Over the River.” The package was about an idea, it was ephemeral, and it had to be destroyed to be desired; it had to fail. What better way to fail than to never exist at all? It was never about the sculpture, it was about the attempt.
Almost exactly five years ago, Christo was taking his work before a board of commissioners in Fremont County, Colorado, to get what seemed like one of the last bits of approval he needed for “Over the River,” his and the late Jeanne-Claude’s ambitious public work that would have suspended silvery fabric over six miles of the Arkansas River. The project would hopefully be installed that summer. My friend and I set out from Denver while it was still dark to get to Cañon City in time for an early morning rally that preceded the county hearing.
After sleeping in a Walmart parking lot for a couple hours, we showed up to meet Christo, bleary-eyed but energetic. Christo had been through Colorado a lot over the years, doing research, mounting exhibitions of his proposal drawings, building support from local arts organizations, and persuading and pleading with those less excited about the work, so this wasn’t the first time we had met — you could call me a fan. I still have a light blue t-shirt in my dresser with the words “Friend of Over the River” that I received at a meeting; I don’t wear it, but can’t bring myself to get rid of it. Once, he dug through his planner and handed me an old postcard of the “The Gates,” his and Jeanne-Claude’s 2005 installation of thousands of orange billowing panels in Central Park. This postcard lay propped on a shelf near my bed for several years.
Needless to say, I was surprised to find myself happy when I received the email announcement from “Over the River” stating that Christo will “no longer wait on the outcome [of legal arguments],” choosing to devote all his energy to another ongoing work in Abu Dhabi. Why, after 20 years of conceptualization and five years of legal battles, would he abandon the work, is one question with its own potential answers. Why I would suddenly be glad to hear of the cancellation of a project I had been so excited about for so long, is another question. In short, the project was never about actually existing; it was about ideas, about labor, and about art.
While the romanticism surrounding Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects is strong — the love story (they even share a birthday!), the sumptuous billowing fabric, her hair! — attending these meetings reminded me of the other important aspects of the work: lawyers, the project existing as its own corporation, and the millions of dollars involved. Though I might have expected these factors to diminish the supposed magic of the work, revealing the hidden mysteries behind these grand but ephemeral gestures, the opposite was true.
The works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude have excited me over the years, not for their formal qualities, but for their interest in negotiation, bureaucracy, and the imagination. Part of the intrigue (and frustration) with Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work is that it’s hard to categorize in a lineage of art history. It seems to me, however, directly engaged with institutional critique, early conceptual art, and conversations around labor, exchange, and negotiation. Artists like Jill Magid or Antonio Vega Macotela, negotiating with governments, corporations, and private citizens, seem appropriate bedfellows.
Christo calls this convincing stage of the work the “software period,” where the work exists only in the minds of the supporters and adversaries (as opposed to the “hardware period,” when the work exists in the world for a few days). This period is just as important as the installation: when you open a catalogue of one of the duo’s projects, half the images are of meetings, rallies, site visits, conversations; when they give talks, they are devoted almost entirely to stories of negotiation and rejection, to dry logistics (lamenting the lengths of PDFs, discussing how materials are recycled), which are only interesting because they are of a scale that at which only governments and corporations typically operate.
Their projects are about how far one can go in the name of art, how much can be invested into something with no practical function, something “beautiful.” Christo seems to perform the role of the romantic artist: always quick to discuss having no assistants; careful to mention that these things don’t need to exist; describing the process of giving every resource they have toward a single project, projects which Jeanne-Claude said are about freedom, about love.
When Christo discusses his work, it is always a discussion of endurance, of overcoming adversity for art’s sake. The pair failed to get permission for their Reichstag project in 1971, ‘81, and ‘87; it finally came to be in 1995, and then only after a 70-minute debate in Germany’s Parliament. He always mentions that they have failed to get permission for 37 projects (far outnumbering their successful public works). He describes works in terms of the sacrifices of time and money made, the struggles endured during the process, and the opposition encountered. I read it all as a kind of social artwork, a decades-long grand gesture about the importance of art. “Over the River” is not about fabric, and it’s not about a river. It’s about putting energy into art, about convincing people it matters.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude would undoubtedly disagree with me, saying: “You have to be there. You have to walk it, touch it.” But this privileging of proximity ignores how we view art today. I have seen “Over the River” (and “The Gates,” “Valley Curtain,” and “Wrapped Reichstag”), not because I was fortunate enough to live near them (I wasn’t) or rich enough to visit them (I also wasn’t), but because they exist as documentation online, in books, in museums, and in the news. I have even seen the forthcoming “Mastaba” in Abu Dhabi, because it exists as proposal drawings and maquettes. Mostly, these works exist in my mind as ideas, as petitions, and that’s where they’re more aptly situated. You don’t have to touch something to know it.
Cañon City, the “Corrections Capital of the World,” where I sat for that Fremont County Commissioner hearing, is a curious social context for a work like “Over the River”; resisting citizens compared the project, Christo, and the commissioners to Nazis, rapists, and mass murderers. It was never meant to be a work for everyone to enjoy (as the website suggests), because the only people able to come into contact with it would have been the reluctant townspeople, wealthy whitewater rafters, and vacationers. (Experiencing the work would have required a six-hour rafting trip or an hour-and-a-half drive, and that is only once visitors had made their way to rural Colorado.)
I saw a meme recently that shows a visitor’s casual photo of Katharina Grosse’s MoMA PS1 commission at Fort Tilden juxtaposed with her proposal rendering. It’s funny because it’s true: Grosse’s work can’t live up to the imagined potential of the proposal, and thus exists best as an idea, as a possibility. Though it has some undeniable appeal (and immediately became a backdrop for several fashion editorials), her most stunning documentation photos of the work are taken from overhead, a vantage point which viewers don’t actually get to experience. Similarly with Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s documentation of their realized installations, often from helicopters or from private land, these photos point to the work as an image in one’s mind, not an experience created for physically present viewers.
“Over the River” is different from Grosse’s Fort Tilden house though, because it will become another plot point in a long story about two lovers who traveled the world convincing people that art matters and conjuring a sense of awe in the public. Sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they didn’t, which makes the story all the more rich. Though they have had proposals shot down in the past, to spend 20 years on a project and then cancel it is a new type of ephemerality. The work is more dynamic, and indeed more democratic, when we can experience it this way. In the coming years, I imagine that many of us will remember “Over the River” fondly — I can see the light bouncing off the surface of the fabric, the way the draped river curved along the highway, the hypnotic motion of the panels. It doesn’t have to exist for it to matter.