April 20th, 2011

Image: sketch of “Over the River,” courtesy of christojeanneclaude.net

32 failures and 22 successes. Would you give this track record an award? Probably not. So maybe it’s time to shift our perceptions.

The artists Jeanne Claude and Christo have this very same track record. And last night, we celebrated this lifetime of achievement (so far!) at Kingsbury Hall. Environmental artist Christo visited the University of Utah in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where he spoke about his current projects and life’s work (with partner of 40 years, Jeanne-Claude) in a lecture titled “Christo and Jeanne-Claude, two works in progress: Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, Colorado and The Mastaba, Project for the United Arab Emirates.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude collaborated and created monumental environmental works of art for over 40 years. Since the age of six, Christo was on the “artist track” as his family encouraged him and helped him navigate his path. Believing that people should have intense and memorable experiences of art outside the institution of the museum, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have typically created temporary works of art — usually lasting two weeks — on a vast scale. Borrowing land, structures, and spaces used and/or built by the public, they momentarily intervene in the local population’s daily rhythm in order to create “gentle disturbances” intended to refocus citizens’ impressions. Some of their most famous pieces include The Umbrellas, Japan – USA, 1984-91; Wrapped Coast, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia, 1969 and The Gates, Central Park, New York, City, 1979-2005.

And so… back to the life lessons. I expected to learn more about this influential artist (anyone see the AT&T commercials with draped orange fabric?) about art, but not life skills. The lecture, although fast-paced and well-practiced, touched my heart. It made me think about what it means to fail and my own personal desire to challenge myself. And I don’t think anyone left with auditorium without the experience affected their life in a very personal way. Even my (admitted) non-artistic husband had a “take away”: a new inspiration for a soon-to-be-built Arts building here in Utah… “Let’s make it fluid!”

With his work, Christo brings an awareness to our physical world and allows artwork to become a part of the political process. The power in the team’s artworks is that they cannot stay. He told us last night, “Our pieces have a tenderness, a fragility. Everyone know that this will never come again… people want to experience something that will only last for a short time.” These “short times” cost a pretty penny (all covered by Jean Claude and Christo’s artwork and preparatory materials). On “The River,” they have spent $10 Million so far… and the project is at least 3 years away from being realized. And the best way to kill a project? Suggest it to them!

As easily seen in the slide show part of the lecture, Christo said that his artworks, “deal with beauty, and I hope that they are visually dynamic.” They created the works for themselves; if anyone else liked it, “that’s a bonus… [They are] totally useless, nobody can own them or buy tickets, but they are pure poetry…one gate is not a work of art… We live in a highly regulated world, and by borrowing a space… we deal with many levels. The most important thing is to make people think about it before it physically exists.”

I particularly loved hearing about their most difficult project: The Pont Neuf. As he told it, the King of France, “is like a czar.” The bridge itself, “is a thouroughfare. And the President was socialist and the mayor was  a conservative and they never talked to one another. It was a very stressful situation.” But Christo was able to navigate the political process with never-ending diligence. Well, almost never-ending. When several Barcelona presidents were assassinated while Jeanne Claude and Christo were putting together a piece in that city, they decided to pass when the last President asked them to re-submit. I guess it’s best to keep the politicians alive, and move on.

And there were always other projects. Several irons in the fire. The Gates, their longest running project, took 28 years from inception to completion. But when an idea took root, the team would devote all of their “resources, energy, and money” to the front-line project. The fact that they were able to push past their many rejections and rise to their current notoriety is incredibly inspirational. There is an often quoted line: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” Well, Jeanne Claude and Christo took it to another level: “What would you do if you knew you would fail, time and time again… but you knew it would be worth it in the end?” They knew, in the end, there would be art. Powerful, beautiful, glorious art. And all of the struggles would be worth their time.

Christo is a type of mad scientist, testing and refining the team’s projects with incredible precision and patience. But there is a soft side to the incredibly pragmatic man. He and Jeanne Claude worked together “because of love. Our life was an art.” Although he called Jeanne Claude “critical and argumentative,” we could all sense that he is missing her with the intensity of a sculptor would missing one of his hands. With each new audience question, Christo asked himself, “what would Jeanne Claude say.” Artist couples are their own breed, but these two brought out the best in each other and it was painful to hear in his voice how much he missed his partner.

We were left with valuable life lessons on both art and love: “To make art is a private study; there are no rules, but you need courage and you need to work a lot. The biggest problem is figuring out what it is you should do.”

What will you do today, knowing that you will fail… also knowing that in the end there will be art?