For 16 days in February 2005, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed 7,503 saffron-colored vinyl panels around New York's Central Park. The panels were attached to 5-inch square vertical and horizontal poles. The way that they fluttered in the breeze and reflected light made them seem like part of the natural surroundings. Yet at the same time, they were completely unnatural, out of place, changing a familiar place into a bright-hued alien world.
Christo thrives on that contradiction. He is in tune with the landscape but wants to change our perceptions of it as well. And that's something that he and his late wife accomplished every time they wrapped a massive structure in fabric. The sheer scale of these projects was mind-boggling. Take for instance the "Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin," which used over a million square feet of material and took 25 years to complete, that is if you include all the planning and negotiations entailed in getting permission to transform the edifice. Christo considers the developmental stage to be a key part of the art-making process, because it involves people from all walks of life — politics, preservation, curatorial — highlighting a valuable dialogue between artist and viewer.
So it's fitting that Christo's visit to Charleston is billed as "A Presentation and Dialogue." He will speak at the sold-out event, show images of his best-known projects, answer questions from the audience, and sign copies of the books Christo and Jeanne-Claude and Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Through the Gates and Beyond. His trip also precedes the summer Gibbes exhibit Modern Masters from the Ferguson Collection, which features two of his preparatory works.
Opinions on the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude are polarized. Some visitors to the installations are positively moved by the experience; others respond with hatred. According to New York's Department of Parks and Recreation, more than a million people visited "The Gates," those bright saffron panels clustered around Central Park. Some of the visitors didn't like the color or the placement, while others wanted the panels to be permanent. Love him or hate him, Christo has a lot of insight to offer his Charleston audience, not just because he's been working on large-scale projects for four decades, but because he deals with board hearings, public forums, bureaucratic debates, and legal wrangling to complete his self-funded art. To anyone who's ever had to deal with pencil pushers to reach a goal, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are a great example of achievement through perseverance.
Christo's visit is only marred by the absence of his wife, who died last November as a result of complications following a brain aneurysm. The couple always had provisions for continuing their work in the event of one's death (they even flew in separate planes in case one crashed), and Christo will honor her by continuing the projects she helped to initiate.
The Gibbes event was announced back in September, so the museum staff had to change their plans slightly after they heard the tragic news of Jeanne-Claude's passing. "We didn't know what would happen for a while," says Pam Wall, the Gibbes' associate curator of exhibitions and interpretation. "We wanted to be respectful. But very quickly he got back to us and said, 'Of course, I'm committed to continuing the projects, and this lecture is part of it.'"
Wall says that the tenor of the event was toned back. Originally, a large celebration was planned for April 13. Now the event has been moved to April 29 for a preview of the Modern Masters exhibition.
Along with preparatory artwork for "The Gates" and "Over the River," a future project, the Gibbes will also show pieces by Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Rauschenberg, all from the private collection of Esther and James Ferguson.
By keeping the Christo visit separate from the exhibition opening, the full focus is on the internationally renowned artist. Who knows — it might not be the last we see of him. There's always the possibility that he'll spot something worth wrapping and we'll get our own like-it-or-loathe-it installation. Fort Sumter? The U.S.S. Yorktown? If the artist is looking for a venerable institution that's known throughout the land, we have the perfect subject for him to wrap: Mayor Joe.