Globally-recognized sculptor and visual artist Christo spoke to students, faculty and the public about his lifetime achievements in the design world and the irrationality of his work Thursday afternoon at the Michigan Theater. His presentation was part of the Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series, in partnership with the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and attracted more than 300 attendees.
Christo and his artistic partner and wife, Jeanne-Claude, created massive public installations featuring various materials such as fabrics, oil drums and steel. Jeanne-Claude passed away in 2009 due to complications from a brain aneurysm.
On working with his wife, Christo said she taught him to always push the boundaries of his artistic potential.
“She was very critical,” Christo said. “I mean that she was argumentative, very critical. We still, today, we need to be very critical. We cannot be satisfied with ourselves.”
Prior to his dialogue with audience members, Christo guided the crowd through a brief tour of his career with images of his grandest physical sculptures and installations in public spaces. From his early work in the ’50s and ’60s with smaller sculptures and sketches, Christo moved to larger mediums. Some of his most notable projects include The Gates, a 2005 installation of 7,503 bright saffron, fabric-covered gates lining the pathways of Central Park in New York City, and The Umbrellas, a display of 3,100 colored umbrellas in the mountains of both Ibaraki, Japan, and California in 1991.
During his presentation, Christo repeatedly stressed the lack of purpose and meaning in his work. He said he aims to create a purely physical response from his audience and doesn’t welcome attempts to interpret and find deeper narratives in his installations.
“All of our projects are totally irrational, totally useless,” Christo said. “Nobody needed this. Only myself and some friends who needed it desperately tried to do it. That’s all.”
Christo spent a large portion of his slideshow presentation discussing the sheer massive proportions of his Mastaba project, which was conceived in 1977 and has yet to be completed. The sculpture plans include 410,000 multi-colored barrels, echoing Islamic architecture. Once finished, it will be the largest sculpture in the world, standing at 492 feet tall. It will be his only permanent installation and will stand in Al Gharbia, United Arab Emirates.
He went on to discuss The Floating Pier, a floating bridge that connected islands on Italy’s Lake Iseo for 16 days in 2016. 100,000 square meters of fabric was used to cover the pier and 200 anchors, five tons each, were placed to hold the walkway in place to combat the constant tide.
Despite planning some projects, like the Floating Pier, for decades, his installations only stay up for a short period of time.
“We always say ‘once in a lifetime and never again’,” Christo said. “That is the most important thing. We never do the same things again. Never, never because in a world of repetition, … this project is unique … Like every human is unique, we are unique in the world.”
Christo declined to comment during the question and answer session about the controversy surrounding his Over the Bridge installation this past January. He pulled long-standing plans to cover sections of the Arkansas River with cloth after legal troubles concerning the environmental impacts of said installation.
Art & Design freshman Maggie Roback said she heavily resonated with his declaration that being an artist is not a profession, but a passion. She said as seniors complete their senior projects, she knows she’ll have to persevere when things get rough.
“I’m just going to have to remind myself of that and because I’m a freshman, just keep reminding myself and building towards that as college goes on,” Roback said.
Cheresse Thornhill, Design professor at Design and Architecture Senior High in Miami, was visiting the University as a part of a Stamps program and attended Christo’s lecture with the program. She said Christo’s remarks inspired her to take up sculpture and break out of her corporate environment in favor of more fine art. She also said his lessons about not forcing your project to go one way when it wants to go another were very inspiring for an art teacher.
“There wasn’t any real purpose in his work,” Thornhill said. “It was all about emotion and it was great to see a lot of his sketches he had done prior and a lot of the mockups he had done. It seemed like he just let the project take on a life of it’s own and he didn’t seem to control the process too much so I thought that was great.”
With such a long career and many projects that took years of planning, one audience member asked if he had a favorite project from his years. He said each project is like his kin.
“How many children do you have?,” Christo said. “Who is your favorite child? Each project is like a slice of our lives. They happen in a particular moment in our life.”