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Construction of Christo’s “Big Air Package” at the Gasometer Oberhausen, Germany. February 2013. (all photographs unless indicated by Wolfgang Volz & courtesy Christo)

Christo’s latest project, an awe-inspiring installation in an industrial relic in Germany, looks more like a captured dirigible than much of the previous fabric-based work he’s created with his late wife Jeanne-Claude. In fact, a balloon-building company was involved in engineering the “Big Air Package,” a towering installation recently constructed in the Gasometer in Oberhausen.

Wolfgang Volz, a longtime collaborator and photographer for Christo and Jeanne-Claude and the Project Manager for the “Big Air Package,” explained over email the engineering challenges of the installation, for which they worked with balloon company GEO – Die Luftwerker. “They had great experience in building large inflatable skins even though they had never build anything of this size,” he wrote. “As a matter of fact no one has ever built as big. The ‘Big Air Package’ is the biggest inflatable structure ever built.”

Christo, “The Big Air Package (Project for Gasometer, Oberhausen)” (2013), pencil, charcoal, pastel, wax crayon, fabric, and architectural plans. (photograph by André Grossmann)

The Gasometer is gargantuan. Built in the 1920s to store natural gas, it was decommissioned in the 1980s and became an exhibition space in 1993. It’s the tallest Gasometer in Europe, and the continent’s tallest exhibition space, at 385 feet, and the “Big Air Package” nearly fills its interior at 295 feet, kept inflated with air fans.

“The biggest challenge was that we have been assembling a huge ‘something’ almost as big as the Gasometer itself,” Volz explained. “The package was sewn in Lübeck, Germany and consists of seven distinct elements, a top and six rings. All parts are small enough so that they can enter through the very tiny entrance of the Gasometer. All was then assembled using the very limited floor-space on the upper level of the Gasometer. This assembly was quite challenging and luckily the concept of putting it together using velcro turned to work out perfectly.”

“Big Air Package” (2010-13) in the Gasometer Oberhausen, Germany. (photograph by Wolfgang Volz)

Visitors enter the inflatable installation through airlocks, and once inside the translucent fabric lets in illumination from the skylights and installed projectors, diffusing light through the space. It’s much more ethereal than “The Wall,” an installation of 13,000 oil drums that Christo and Jeanne-Claude constructed at the Gasometer in 1999, and also a very different audience experience from something like the “Wrapped Reichstag.”

“It blocks your view just like the wrappings with the difference that what you cannot see from the outside is constantly changing depending who is inside the ‘Package,’” wrote Volz.

Oberhausen is a heavily industrial city, and the Gasometer itself is a stunning transformation of what could have been an abandoned hulk after it passed its usefulness. Now with the “Big Air Package” the contrast between the city and the seraphic installation must be even more striking. For those of us who can’t make it to Germany, what is it like inside? Volz answers:

“This is a tough question. Even though I have spent many hours photographing the BAP and much filming has been done, there is nothing to replace the personal experience. It is very difficult to describe. I am not a religious person, but should I ever make it to heaven, being inside the BAP is what I would think it is like in heaven.”

Construction of Christo’s “Big Air Package” at Gasometer Oberhausen, Germany, February 2013. (photograph by Wolfgang Volz)

Christo, “Big Air Package” (2010-13) in the Gasometer Oberhausen, Germany. (photograph by Wolfgang Volz)

 “Big Air Package” is at the Gasometer in Oberhausen, Germany, through December 30. 

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