Some 20 years ago, I flew to New York to interview the Bulgarian-born artist Christo. Arriving at the address provided at 10am, I was sure I was at the wrong spot: a battered metal front door covered with graffiti, it looked more like a warehouse than a home.
While I was checking my notes, Christo threw the door open and greeted me with a big grin. “Would you like a Bloody Mary? I make the best in the world.” I nodded, and he made a pitcher of the best Bloody Mary I’ve ever had.
A year later, I contacted him to ask where I could buy prints of his work for my new house, not confident he would remember that morning meeting — but in less than a week, I received a package of signed posters.
From then on, I followed his work closely. There is no other artist (or author, playwright or musician) whose work has inspired me to make international journeys but I’ve seen The Gates installation in New York in 2005 and The Floating Piers at Lake Iseo in Italy in 2016 — plus a rather shorter journey to Hyde Park which hosted the Mastaba project in 2018.
Christo died last year but his scheme for wrapping L’Arc de Triomphe had been granted long-awaited permission and, crucially, he had already set down precise, detailed plans. Postponed because of the pandemic, the installation was rescheduled and finally completed on September 18, running to October 3 (and available to view live via a webcam).
But if you can, race to Paris: you will never see anything like this again.
Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude came up with the idea of covering the Napoleonic monument back in 1962. The idea was simple: to cover the famous arch with fabric for a short period of time but naturally it took decades to persuade the relevant officials.
And, as with all their major undertakings, the wrapping of such a historic monument required years of careful preparation. The final work involves a mind-boggling 25,000 square meters of recyclable silvery blue fabric and uses 3,000 meters of rope.
More than a thousand people were employed to realise the project, which has cost a staggering 12 million pounds — financed entirely by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. All this for a 16-day installation, after which the piece is deconstructed and recycled.
Predictably, people have complained that the work is a waste of money. Critics say that should not be considered as an artwork, with the French media split between those who see it as a desecration of a treasured national monument and those excited to see the arch undergo such a crazy temporary transformation.
For me, it’s one of the most spectacular sights I’ve seen. Like most of the couple’s projects it is preposterous and utterly joyful.
Christo’s nephew, who was involved in completing the project, said one of his uncle’s aims was to bring out the ‘essence’ of L’Arc, and the wrapping does emphasize the basic shape of the monument. Without decades of accumulated dirt, the cover of clean shining fabric and startling bright red rope is simple and the impact is dramatic.
The material was deliberately chosen to look attractive in different lights — in the sun, in the rain and illuminated at night — and unlike most works of art, this is truly interactive: you can lean against the fabric, visit the top of L’Arc and walk around, gazing over Paris.
It is possible that there will be other posthumous installations of Christo’s work, but certainly not for years, so it’s worth seizing this brief opportunity to see something so striking, a wonderful final flourish.