The soft material which drapes the Reichstag will remind us of the flames that lashed these walls and of how vulnerable and endangered democracy is” – German politician Konrad Weiss, 1994

Earlier this month I heard of the death of Christo Javacheff, more commonly known as Christo, and famed for his work with Moroccan artist Jeanne-Claude (de Gouillebon, 1935-2009) and in particular their transient 1995 Berlin-showstopper Wrapped Reichstag. Christo was born in Bulgaria, and studied art in Sofia, before fleeing the Soviet bloc in 1957. He remained strongly motivated by the pursuit of artistic and political freedoms throughout his life and career.

[Photo taken from the book Lost Art by Jennifer Mundy (published by the Tate in 2013).]

Christo met Jeanne-Claude in Paris in 1958, and they lived and worked together for many years. Christo painted, but he also began to make objects, wrapping, covering and adding an element of the mysterious to everyday objects, such as barrels, paint cans and furniture (Jeanne-Claude was not credited in this early work). Christo and Jeanne-Claude also together began to create temporary installations, often with a political message: for example, they filled a road in the Paris Latin Quarter with 89 oil drums, to represent the barriers erected by police in other parts of the city to contain protesters against the conflict in Algeria.

They began to wrap entire buildings, such as the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, in the late 1960s, and even wrapped parts of the natural environment, such as stretches of coastline.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude first considered the idea of wrapping the Reichstag in 1971, when, of course, Berlin was still a divided city, and the historic German parliament building (which dates back to the late 1800s), was under the jurisdiction of both East and West Berlin. Damaged by an arson attack in the 1930s, the Reichstag building was restored in the 1960s, by which time the seat of the West German government had been relocated to Bonn. Although the building was barely used, the site remained extremely politically sensitive, and the artists’ plans were repeatedly rejected. But after the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, and the reunification of Germany took place, the plan was finally able to come to fruition.

The building was covered with 100,000 sq m of fabric with an aluminium surface, secured by 200,000 kg of steel frames and some 15 km of blue rope. The intensely modern, silvery material hung from the building’s towers, statuary and stone decor in sumptuous pleats and folds, echoing classical art. The project cost US $15m. to implement.

The Wrapped Reichstag was on display for two weeks and it attracted huge numbers of visitors. It worked as an easily comprehensible symbol of the emergence of the newly unified Germany:

The wrapped Reichstag makes lightness and softness … into characteristics of the greatest monumental power … the wrapped Reichstag can almost be seen as an ideal symbol of the new Germany” – Paul Goldberger, New York Times

The German Government asked Christo and Jeanne-Claude to extend the duration of the installation beyond two weeks. They refused, on the grounds that “non-permanent art will be missed“. Completed on 24 June 1995, it was dismantled on 7 July, and the materials were sent for recycling. I wish I’d experienced it firsthand, (though it wouldn’t have been top of my to do list back in ’95).

It is a kind of naivety and arrogance to think that this thing stays forever, for eternity. All these projects have this strong dimension of missing, of self-effacement … they will go away, like our childhood, our life. They create a tremendous intensity when they are there for a few days.” – Christo

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