INCONVERSATION

CHRISTO with Jarrett Earnest

At the premier of The Gates (2007) at the Tribeca Film Festival, Jeanne-Claude explained, “Between Christo and me there is a love story for each other and for art. Then there is a love story between Christo and Jean-Claude and David and Albert Maysles.” Albert Maysles added that there is “one more love story: between the person behind the camera and the people being filmed. It is essential to have that kind of rapport, a heart to heart kind of connection.” Given discussions of documentary film and its contested representations of “real events,” it is useful to approach the five films the Maysles made with Christo and Jeanne-Claude as love letters. Which is to say, objective truth counts for very little in their mission: to convey an impossible feeling from one person to another. What these films do reveal are the important social aspects of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s oeuvre, an element increasingly important to younger artists. Unfortunately, Jeanne-Claude passed away in 2009. Christo, her husband and collaborator of over 50 years, met with Jarrett Earnest to discuss their history with film.

Christo and Jeanne Claude, “Wrapped Walk Ways 1977-78.” Jacob Loose Park, Kansas City, Missouri. Photo: © 1978 Marion Gray. All rights reserved.

Christo: We have been involved with film for nearly 40 years. Most of our work is temporary so we were conscious of creating a record, but film didn’t come into it until a bit later because in 1959, filming was a very expensive operation. In 1961, I was living as a political refugee in Paris, and a Bulgarian-born American friend called me to say, “I am traveling here with two great friends, the American filmmakers Albert and David Maysles.” And that is how we met. I came to America in 1964 to participate in a group exhibition at Leo Castelli and we knew few American artists, but Albert and David were generous with me and Jeanne-Claude and we became very close friends. We went ahead with various projects and still, there was no film. There was just no money for film—only photographs. In 1969 when we wrapped the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago there were two very lovely people named Roberto Guerra and Eila Hershon who filmed it. At that time I met Christian and Michael Blackwood who wanted to film “Wrapped Coast” in 1969 for German television. Of course the television station had the rights and it wasn’t done the way we wanted—they filmed only the final stage. Finally between ’70 and ’72 when we were working on “Valley Curtain” we found money to pay David and Al to come film and they became completely inside the making of the project. We were the producers of those films, sometimes spending a million or two to make them, because they filmed everything along the way. To give you an idea, the very first film had 800 hours of material even though it is just a one-hour film in the end.

We were not involved with anything they were doing. We had total confidence with David and Albert; it was like a family. I remember at the time of “Running Fence” David and Al said that we needed to rent a very big Cadillac convertible so the 16mm camera could have a very soft ride. We were going in that car to see ranchers. Some of them were very nasty to me but especially to Jeanne-Claude, and there was a moment she was crying in the car and David was filming it. Jeanne-Claude said, “No, don’t film this,” but it was very beautiful and we put it in the final film. We worked with other movie-makers when David passed away in 1987, but those films are in no way comparable to the films of the Maysles.

With The Gates film there was hundreds of hours of film from ’79 shot by Albert and David, but the film was finished by Antonio Ferrera. HBO showed interest in The Gates film but they had their own idea, so we said we will do it our way and provide the missing money ourselves. The Gates was filmed over 26 years, and it is very beautiful in the film to see myself aging and Jeanne-Claude changing.

Jarrett Earnest (Rail): Watching the films made me feel that the final installation was not the work; the work was you and Jeanne-Claude going to talk to people about art and getting them to agree to be part of it.

Christo: I love that part of these projects. Jeanne-Claude and I always say there are two periods of our projects: the “software” and the “hardware.” The software period is when the work only exists in the drawings, on paper, and in the minds of the thousands of people who want to help us and the thousands of people who try to stop us. We don’t do commissions because it’s during the software period that the project develops its identity. With “Running Fence,” only during the permitting process did we discover the dimension of it.

Rail: When you first started working with the Maysles brothers what kind of conversations did you have about what you wanted in the films?

Christo: I never said how the films should be done. They had carte blanche during filming. However, during the editing period they were very eager to hear our opinion all the time. There was that sequence in Running Fence where the workers were installing the cables and the poles for 24 miles in the beautiful landscape and there was this footage of fog coming up off the ocean. There was so much footage and David said he wanted to put music over it. Jeanne-Claude and I said “We don’t want to have music!” We tried a lot of things and ultimately David convinced us—they used the Eagles. We are not stubborn in that way. But, for example with The Gates, Antonio Ferrera was editing it—he is like family and he always asked us to come see how the film progressed—and finally Jeanne-Claude convinced him how it should end, which I think is the best ending: The ordinary hot dog vender on the west side of the park was asked what he thought about “The Gates” and he starts to talk about it and says, “I like ‘The Gates’ but I prefer ‘The Umbrellas.’”

Rail: Did being filmed change your interactions with other people? For example, when you were in Sonoma and ranchers were being very aggressive, did you feel safer or more empowered because the Maysles were there filming?

Christo: It was always a problem because many people don’t like to be filmed. Sometimes they refused to be filmed. I like everything to be filmed. It was another complicated story to secure the releases. This is also about the way Albert and David work. They had a special camera engineered that they could handle and film very intimately. Al has a way with people that makes them so relaxed. It is very human, with gentleness and simplicity. Most cameramen are very arrogant and impossible.

Rail: That seems like the Maysles are the perfect parallel to you and Jeanne-Claude, who interact with people with so much grace and charm.

Christo: We need to get permission! We need to convince people to get into the project. In 50 years we realized 22 projects and we failed to get permission for 37. That is not easy!

Rail: You said “The Gates” are a site-specific work, but what the films show is that the art is everything you did from 1979 to 2005, in terms of getting permission and developing relationships: that is the art too?

Christo: Exactly. Of course people see the end product as the work of art, and that is what many don’t understand. They think we are just masochists to go through all that. After “The Gates” we had a pile of cities asking us to take them to their parks. All our projects are unique images. We will never transfer them to another place and it would bore us to do that, because by then we already know how to do it. Trying to figure out how to do it is the exciting thing of the project.

Rail: Because you have approached every step of engaging both institutions and private citizens to participate, it seems like your work prefigures a lot of what later artists called “social practice.”

Christo: Our projects are not done for the sake of that—that would be theater. I come from a communist country, Marxist educated, and I cannot stand propaganda art. Our project is one of enjoying beauty. We get involved into the ecological, political situations we do because they are already there, and have to be worked with to make the project. In the world, everything is owned by somebody. If it is ranchers, then we talked to ranchers. The Reichstag is owned by 80 million Germans, and there is no way we can talk to them all. But they elected 660 deputies of the German parliament to represent them, so we had to convince the majority of them to support the project. The principle person was the prime minister who was a very powerful conservative leader, and he was so much against the project that he moved the discussion of the wrapping of the Reichstag from a simple vote to a full debate and roll-call vote for the German Parliament that took two hours. The vote was scheduled to be in 1994 and Jeanne-Claude and I had hundreds of meetings with people. The principle speech against it was so violently negative that many conservatives changed their mind and ended up voting for the wrapping of the Reichstag, and it happened. The man who made that speech is a very important man in the European Union, the current finance minister of Germany, Wolfgang Schäuble. Recently a newspaper asked him if he had any regrets and he said “yes”—that he was against our wrapping of the Reichstag.

Rail: Because once it happened he loved it?

Christo: Yes. Very few people say they don’t like our projects once they experience them. Because the German parliament took the project on in such a charged and public way it made it a hundred times more important. Why I’m not interested in so-called “social artists” is because they don’t make anything—it’s pure illustrations that have nothing to do with the real world. We always involved the real world: the real fear and real drama, because those are the only valuable things. That is also why we won’t give a millimeter of our freedom.

Rail: What do you want from the films?

Christo: First that they create archival materials, which is beyond that little one-hour film, because historically we would like people to know what these projects are about. We like the films to translate the humanity of these projects, which is the gift and talent of Albert and David: a humanity which is impossible unless the camera is a witness, with no narration, to the reality of drama. It’s not repeatable. One example is that “The Gates” project started in 1979 with a visit to Theodore Kheel, our lawyer for the project. David loved to film us presenting a project when it first started. In the final film, almost 26 years later, there is footage of Theodore Kheel, now in his 90s, talking to the deputy Parks Commissioner at the press conference, explaining how he met us. He said, “I got a call from a movie maker who came to install lights in my office,” and the next shot is footage of me and Jeanne-Claude walking into the office in 1979—exactly what he is describing. To find those links you have to have so much footage, and you can’t fake it. That is a marvelous moment you can only have if the camera is always there.

Rail: The thing that I love about the Maysles brother’s films is that from just the images or writing I don’t think I would appreciate these works as an expression of you two as people.

Christo: The biggest thing with these projects, and you can see it in the films, is that Jeanne-Claude was incredible. These projects were done because she was so capable putting together people to work with. There was no way just she and I could do this; we need a team. All the time when there is a problem I think “What does Jeanne-Claude think today?” She was a genius at putting people in place. It’s very difficult to have the right group of people.

Rail: I’ve talked to people in San Francisco who worked on “Running Fence”—like the photographer Marion Gray, or Peter Selz who worked as a project manager—and I’ve asked them how the experience of the film relates to how they felt having been there. They said, “That is exactly what it felt like.” Specifically, many people talked about the incidental sounds of the fence.

Christo: That is David’s doing! I remember him one day walking around the fence, recording, and Jeanne-Claude called, “David, what are you doing?” and he said, “We’ve got to have the sound of the hooks against the poles!”

Rail: I feel both your work and the Maysles’s art depends on developing relationships and that that is your gift.

Christo: At the very bottom it is about trust.

Contributor

Jarrett Earnest

JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.

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