with Jonathan Fineberg
Recorded in Christo’s studio, September 8, 2017
Jonathan Fineberg (Rail): I want to talk with you about your creative process.
Christo: Creative process. [Laughs] I talk about myself!
Rail: Perfect! I was thinking about the time you—or, maybe it was Jeanne-Claude—said to me that when you were working on the Pont Neuf,1 at a certain moment you were looking at the fabric coming up underneath the arches and you suddenly had an idea that later led to Over the River [a project on federal lands that Christo canceled after the election of Donald Trump in 2016].
Christo: …The fabric suspended above the water. Some of the project’s idea came from that, some of the project came from many things; but you can see that from the long history of our work. For 50 years we have had a lot of fascination between earth and water. Water was present in the Wrapped Coast,2 water was present in Running Fence3 going to the ocean. And of course water was present in the Pont Neuf and Surrounded Islands.4 Basically, fluidity of water and earth—when they’re connecting, they meet together, the dynamics—was part of a number of projects. It was part of the soul or the texture…the liquidity. It’s something very attractive. We, human beings, are 75% water or more. People who walked so much on The Floating Piers 5 were walking to walk, to go nowhere, because we are made of water. You know, if the moon can move the oceans, water moves also in ourselves. Our projects are very physical, literally physical. Meaning, cold and warm, and the wet and the wind. Not representation of wind, the real wind. Not representation of water, the real wet. I am extremely sensitive to tactile [experience]. I have pleasure in physical things, all the projects are about that. You know, when you are talking about three kilometers, it’s really three kilometers, not a film of three kilometers, not a photograph of three kilometers, not words about three kilometers—really three kilometers to walk on the water. It really means that—these precious sixteen days of that project were the things, the real things.
Rail: With Floating Piers, was there a moment when you realized what you wanted to do in that particular place? I know the idea goes back to something you wanted to do on the Río de la Plata in Buenos Aires, but when was the first moment that you had the idea to do this on Lake Iseo?
Christo: We were just coming back from Australia, after doing Wrapped Coast, and there was so much involving the water there at that time. There was enormous excitement of the force of the wind and everything in Australia, and the water and the fabric and I dislocated my shoulder wrapping the rocks. Really the enormous pleasure of the dynamics of the water meeting the earth, you know, to see it, to be there, to be present. The Argentinian art historian, Jorge Romero Brest visited us in New York. He suggested that we do a project in Argentina. We proposed to build a Wrapped Inflated Pier in the Río de La Plata in Buenos Aires. This project was not realized. In 1996, Jeanne-Claude and I proposed the Daiba Project in Tokyo. This project involved several floating piers, but for various reasons, it was not realized either. In the Spring of 2014, I decided to find a location to realize The Floating Piers. With my nephew Vladimir and with Wolfgang Volz, I scouted the lakes of Northern Italy to find a site. We eventually chose Lake Iseo. With some of Jeanne-Claude’s and my projects we have an idea and we need to find the site (The Umbrellas, Valley Curtain, Running Fence). With other projects, we have the site (The Wrapped Reichstag, Pont Neuf Wrapped, The Gates in Central Park). Now, all of these projects, they involve the adventure of doing the things we like to do.
Rail: So what makes you want to do it?
Christo: Probably the journey. You know each of our projects is like a slice of our life, myself and Jeanne-Claude. And the journey is so exciting—not only the realized things. To arrive to the things the journey is very complicated, it is an adventure in the real world. These projects involve not just my studio, they involve a huge amount of area. We have to rent the land and get permission and each project is different and each project is something that has never been done before. If you go to the city hall to do something, they will try to find [a precedent] in the books to give you permission. But [these projects] they cannot find in the book. And this is the exciting part. All of that is part of the soul of the work. This is why we do not do commissions. This is why we pay for our projects. This is why we do not ask for money. This is what I enjoy, and I cultivated it for fifty years because I am extremely, hooked on the freedom. [Laughs] These projects are totally irrational, totally useless, have no reason to exist. Nobody needs these projects. Only I need them, almost like a crazy person. I need them to happen. That’s all. I need them for myself, for Jeanne-Claude and some friends, and that’s all. There is no explanation. They don’t make people live better, be good, be happier, no. I don’t care about that. To do that is an enormous pleasure! I do the things in my way. Nobody can impose anything, nobody can ask me anything, why should I do it that way, not another way. And probably all these projects are about freedom, total freedom. In fifty years we realized twenty-three projects and failed to get permission for thirty-seven projects. Some projects we refused; Over the River we refused, we changed our minds. You know, the projects, they’re born from me and Jeanne-Claude. If that desire is gone, why should we do it? You don’t need to explain it to anybody.
Rail: This reminds me of the time I asked you if you didn’t need to eat in the middle of the day. You eat your yogurt in the morning and then work until dinner, a late dinner. You said you liked to work a little hungry.
Christo: Yeah. I don’t eat during the day for that reason, I like to feel light, very edgy. Because I am very alert, very awake, and very brusque sometimes on the telephone.
Rail: Can you talk about how you and Jeanne-Claude have done all this together?
Christo: These projects are so complicated and the most important thing is to have critical attitude. Jeanne-Claude was terribly critical. For everything. Argumentative almost. Only for the sake of sheer argument, she’d start discussing something. This is what I’m missing. And this is why we stayed together, because you can see in the films of the Maysles Brothers, we argue ourselves almost to death, screaming, like we would be divorcing. “You are wrong—I’m right,” reverse sides, but that is very important to understand. This project is the long journey of putting together connections of people and ideas. This is how the project is to be realized. It’s not a normal poet writing or an artist painting. I love that journey, that voyage, because I find it extremely entertaining. I don’t think any artist, visual artist, has any idea of the variety of people we’re seeing, from the Japanese rice farmer, to the government senator, congressman, to generals, to all kinds of people we see, the variety of people we need to interact with for these projects is mind blowing. That permitting process is unbelievable.
Rail: And all the people who help build it.
Christo: Each project has its own physical dimension, and to do the things we need to have enormous advice from professional people.
Rail: What is that process for a project like The Floating Piers?
Christo: We are not doing projects to have a process. No, we are doing projects to arrive at that thing. One of the most important things that that project has—very few people were thinking about it—is that it had no parapet. No rail. This is a 700 foot deep lake, with no rail. Only in Italy can that be done. No way in Japan, no way in Germany, not in the United States.
Rail: But to do it another way would have meant no project?
Christo: An ultimatum! And the politicians needed to think about it, to stick their necks out, and to understand all these things needed to be put together.
Rail: Do you have any advice for others embarking on creative projects?
Christo: No. I cannot advise anybody. I never judge. Who am I to jury somebody? Jeanne-Claude always said, “We cannot give you advice. Only you know what to do.” The big problem is to find what you like to do. In life, to everybody, to know what they like to do. And it is impossible to say to other people what they should do. Because you are not them. And only they should discover what they like to do. This is why I do not teach. I lecture exactly about what I do. I lecture, I show the images, and after that answer questions. But I will not answer questions about politics, about religion, and certainly not about other artists. I only talk about myself. That’s all. Really, I am totally not interested about general things. This is the same thing I always say.
Rail: I remember you saying that.
Christo: And this is the creative process. It is very private. It’s very personal. This is why I only lecture, show images, and answer questions. I do that continuously to get permission. We need to articulate what we would like to do in a very clear way. Because many people have no idea what art is; they’re not interested in art. And we need to be very direct. I need to be able to talk to anybody, from farmers, ranchers, generals, little children, big children, retired people, about the project. I’m commending you that you have a school about creativity. This is a very private thing, almost like making love. You cannot explain that to anyone.
- The Pont Neuf Wrapped, (Project for Paris 1975-85).
- Wrapped Coast, (One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Australia, 1968-9).
- Running Fence, (Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76).
- Surrounded Islands (Project for Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Fla, 1981-83).
- The Floating Piers (Lake Iseo, Italy, 2014–16).
CHRISTO and JEANNE-CLAUDE are among the most prominent artists of the last half century, realizing twenty-three of the largest art works ever made, such projects as Running Fence (Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76), The Gates (Central Park, NYC, 1979-2005), and the forthcoming Mastaba of Abu Dhabi (Project for United Arab Emirates).
JONATHAN FINEBERG, University Professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, writes broadly on modern art and visual thinking. He and David Yager have just launched a radical new Ph.D. program for the University of the Arts focused on creativity as a foundation for doctoral research (www.uarts.edu/phd). Fineberg's newest book is Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain.