Dead but Covered: The Arc de Triomphe wrapped by Christo & Jeanne-Claude
You know how it is when a close relation has passed away: going through the papers, taking care of unfinished business. Wrapping things up. If the deceased was a famous artist who has left the most detailed instructions for projects that can still be realized without his physical presence, things might only be a little bit more complicated – just ask Vladimir Yavachev, nephew of ‘the monument’s taylor’ Christo Vladimirov Yavachev who’s following through with the Wrapped Arc de Triomphe in Paris (there’s also the artist’s son, Cyril, somewhere, living the sweet life of an artist’s son, but he doesn’t seem to be overly involved with managing the estate, or at least not with this project).
Seeing the almost finished installation on our way to the press conference, and tiny Lego figures – actually workmen, very much alive – moving up and down on ropes across the arch in its haute couture dress, we realized for the first time ever, how big it actually is. Personally I’ve always enjoyed standing on top and looking about the city, a pleasure that’s even manageable for those among us who don’t appreciate exaggerated heights (or escalators: there’s a narrow, steep spiral staircase winding its way up to the top). The views are as good as anybody could reasonably ask for, and it’s – well, it was, but we’ll come to this later – not even expensive, though not free like that secret tip of every tourist guide, the Galeries Lafayette’s roof terrace that once served some flight pioneers for a base camp (Galeries Lafayette on Haussmann, not the latest branch on the Champs Elysees, or wherever else they’re expanding to these days).
But back to Christo and the press conference: Vladimir the nephew seems a nice guy, he’s definitely a great entertainer, hands-on, smiling and joking with the highest dignitaries of city and state culture – who, needless to say, made their appearance that day – and blue collar workers alike, two of whom he dragged on stage when presenting team members from PR to architecture firm. Brilliant moment, when Vladimir suggested a group photo taken without face masks, ‘I’m a rebel’, at which point the politicians’ advisors intervened. His attitude greatly resonates with the event’s brand image (sorry for being a cynic again) which sometimes appears unprofessional, as apparent not least in Christo’s handwritten exhibition logo. But, of course, there can be no doubt about the professionalism of workers and craftsmen who really got the job done. They certainly did: looking at this gift to the city from afar feels like a poor kid casting wishful glances at the Christmas tree through an art collector’s windows, and we are curious again about what’s hiding under the wrapping, ‘have those bumps and dents always been there, has it always looked like a castle’s battlement?’
We’ll spare you a tedious listing of numbers, metres of fabric etc., only so much: the wrapping is heavier than you’d expect – for a moment, we felt very important being handed two small pieces (fine: one I just nicked, showing some initiative for once) as a special gift to the VIP press, then found out that they were given indiscriminately to random visitors. Perhaps more interesting, Christo devised the plan for this project after moving to Paris from socialist Bulgaria in the late 1950s, while living in a tiny room with a distant view of the Arc which greatly influenced his artistic ideas and, ultimately, career. Better not take this thought too far, and ask yourself what it says about a historical monument if all an artist can think about is to wrap and hide it away. The idea, of course, is more about rediscovering and, in a sense, recreating a (much too) familiar sight that nobody notices any longer: giving back the tourist’s eye to locals, and something else to tourists than just another postcard view they’ve always known, helping them and us and everybody to see things for the first time again; to put back into focus what lies hidden in plain view. Changing things without changing them too much; more of the same, but different.
About a quarter of a century before Christo conceived his plan to cover buildings and sites in a ‘large grey dress’, another Parisian had immortalized the little black dress for humans, but we won’t go as far as claiming any direct links between these two. It took roughly another 25 years until, in 1985, the honour fell first to Pont Neuf bridge. Today, nearly 40 years later, Parisians still cherish fond memories of the wrapped Pont Neuf, helping authorities to approve another project, current mayor Anne Hidalgo admitted. At some point, the Centre Pompidou also got involved but I missed the details, reflecting on how it’s easier to accept what you’re familiar with and how this subverts the artwork’s concept and impact: Christo’s art being well-known today, it’s become an almost familiar sight; wrapping things doesn’t change them as much when people know beforehand what to expect and how it will look – are not the best presents always those that you did not add to your wish list?
Mrs Hidalgo further mentioning the grey sky and the annual nuit blanche (white night) of artistic projects all over Paris, I couldn’t help but remember that ‘city of light’ label is clever marketing but rather misleading for those who’ve never been here: Paris is, after all, a thoroughly monochrome city, clad in all shades of grey from the Seine to palaces and skies, so much so that even the Eiffel Tower in her brownish green iron skin – and boy, is she beautiful (la tour – you can be pretty sure, that if it’s phallic in form, the grammatical gender in French is female) brings a dash of colour to her neighbourhood. Only when the sun is shining, the reflections set all the grey, and, obviously old, stones ablaze. The Arc de Triomphe is no exception to the rule: like cut–off elephant feet, its four grey columns reach into the sky, la tête lost dans les nuages and Christo’s wrapping doesn’t take a fundamentally different colour, not white, but grey, a little silvery, more solid than flash. Thin blue strains are woven into the fabric, but not everybody will notice the bluish aura they supposedly lend the installation, while red ribbons hold everything in place – so that’s what they meant with the artist’s clin d’oeil at the tricolore, the French national flag!
As mentioned above, the Wrapped Arc is still an original creation: Christo and his wife and collaborator Jeanne-Claude took care of everything up to the least detail. Rest assured, no evil chemicals have been used in the production process, all the fabric will be recycled (except those samples distributed among visitors, obviously), Probably no slave labour, either, but hey, the cynic says; that’s one reason why the outcome isn’t quite as impressive and enduring as the old white monument hidden underneath. The Eternal Flame on an Unknown Soldier’s grave in the centre of the Arc (technically, it’s rather a perpetually reignited flame) which cannot reach the wrapping and turn it into the world’s monumental blaze, as a representative of the association in charge of rekindling the flame every night affirmed. Much more eloquent, smart and funny than you’d expect your average foreign legion veteran to be, he spontaneously decided to storm the stage and thank everybody in person. Not only are the relics safe, but visitors need to put on a facemask for the pedestrian tunnel leading to the monument, and present their pass sanitaire which until further notice is necessary for participating in all aspects of societal life not only in France. It’s nothing more than an app with a barcode to certify your full recovery, a positively negative test, or double vaccination, as long as you’re not vaccinated with Sputnik or some other vaccine that’s just as efficient.
Also for security reasons, the roundabout at the Monument where some street artist or regular guy in a flash of inspiration (could it even have been somebody involved with the project?) added the fake road sign ‘Place Christo & Jeanne-Claude’, remains closed for cars on all weekends during the project’s runtime. If, still for security reasons, you wonder whether the project would have been feasible in summertime or if the fabric with its woven-in metal strains could heat up enough to burn tourists on the stake (has not every Parisian citizen had this dream from time to time?), the answer is no, it’s getting warm, but not hot, only the reflections are annoying: the city was compelled to order sunglasses for security and other staff who spend hours a day with the installation.
We also went upstairs, but you shouldn’t, because (a) standing on top hardly adds anything to the experience apart from feeling the fabric under your feet (you cannot exactly see the artwork from here – was this different on the Floating Piers in 2016?), and (b) those in charge of the monument – but not the installation – have raised the price of admission to the rooftop to a ridiculous 16 euros, contradicting Christo’s untiringly repeated mantra, his works were freely accessible for all.
Sadly, not only on top, but also at night, the installation is not as impressive as hoped for, ça change pas trop non plus: it doesn’t change all that much, either. Indirect lighting helps the wrapped arch to appear harmoniously grown into the environment, but is this really what was wanted? It’s like a return to the unwrapped condition, and then again, it would have been hard to do otherwise as any brighter lighting would have been reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower and her hourly neon show, Bangkok style.
The whole project is self-funded, financed by the sale of related art works (i.e. the preparatory drawings), so it could come as a surprise that there are no classic souvenir shops in sight, freely accessible for all. I would willingly have bought a poster/T-Shirt/toy model/Arc-shaped macaron or whatever, if only to wrap it for the folks at home! Instead, we found some guys selling catalogues for books nobody’s ever supposed to read, but to put on their coffee table (do you actually know anybody who owns a coffee table for the purpose of displaying books there?). The licensing costs must have been considerable for that former comic book store guy turned multi–millionaire editor. Sadly, they employed students instead of the regular Parisian street vendors, many of whom are of Indian descent. Like us, you should have a look at the artists’ website where under common errors you’ll learn that they never earned a penny from their installations and outrightly refused all merchandising. The (unavoidable) surplus fully went into new projects, which doesn’t mean,the Yavachevs would have lived on fine air – it’s always easier to be anticapitalist when you come from a background where, well, money never exactly needed to play an important role in their lives.
In an unfortunate coincidence – please tell me that’s what it is – a second building almost as monumental as the Arc de Triomphe some metres down the Champs Elysées likewise dresses in a greyish white wrapping this autumn. That’s the Dior flagship store under renovation.
Being faithful readers of the NAE, you might remember my thoughts and more or less substantiated musings on the occasion of a Christo retrospective last year in Berlin, and let me only add this: Christo takes what is already there and makes it a present to the public, to people who already know it without knowing it anymore, like a fancy roleplay dress, handcuffs or diapers: some kink to rejuvenate your relationship which might work for a night or two until the old familiarity sets in, the extraordinary becomes normal, and the effect is lost. Christo’s art needs to be ephemeral, unlike the Arc’s official inscriptions or that name–tag somebody’s carved into the wet concrete next to the access tunnel.
It is in the nature of things that Christo’s art is ephemeral – or was, as long as the artist was alive, yet one more work might still see the light of day: the Mastaba in Saudi-Arabia.
From Vladimir we learned that one of the late artist’s favourite expressions was a triumphant, albeit not grammar-fanatic compatible, “we didded it!” leading me to
mentally replace that famous slogan on an American sportswear company’s T-Shirts and Sweaters with the words “Christo didded it” during the rest of my séjour in Paris.
To sum it up, spectacles and scandals are subject to the laws of inflation, too, and this is just another art project, after all. Who, for example, still remembers the uproar surrounding Paul McCarthy’s oversized buttplug (no weird association of mine, but that’s what it was, all officially) on Place Vendôme in 2014? Christo’s Wrapped Arc might, sadly, be just as forgotten much sooner than later.