No one's ever accused Christo, who's been accused of quite a lot, thank you, of taking the easy way out. Passionate about conflict, he is prone ot mixing it up something terrible. "I have intuition," is the way he puts it, allowing his charming, pied piper's smile to relax his usually serious, committed face, "about where there will be resources of contradiction,"
Christo is a practitioner, probably the best known of what has been variously called, by himself and others, public art, which means in essence that he does very large things in very public places.
He has strung 200,000 square feet of nylon curtain across a Colorado valley, he has wrapped a million square feet of the Australian coast in fabric, and in his best-known project, he constructed a 24-mile-long, 18-foot-long "running fence" along the hills of California's Marina and Sonoma counties a feat called by the New Yorker "one of the most ambitious and controversial art projects of the past decade."
In Washington for a showing of the Maysles brothers' film of the fence project, held to benefit Independent Curators Inc. Christo said he could have built the thing almost anywhere, but that intuition told him to choose northern California.
"And a year after the start," he says, his voice rising in a kind of triumph, "they passed a coastal protection impede his fence's push to the sea and caused enough conflict even for Christo.
Christo likes the fuss, and is obviously headed for more of it with his next project, which has been in the works for five years, to wrap Berlin's Reichstag. Christo even likes it when people say, as one irate Californian did," I bet he can't even paint a picture, he's an idiot." He has his own intriguing ideas of what art is and what art is not, ideas which he is not only too happy to elaborate in nonstop monologues in which the accents of his native Bulgaria; Paris, his second home; and New York, his current one, have an equally intriguing effect on the English language.
First of all, Christo has never believed that "art has anything to do with welfare, with good or bad. With the running fence people complained about the waste - not only the money, but all that energy that could have been channeled to do with justification.
"Nausea is not a comfortable thing, you wake up in the morning and feel 'yechh,'" but Sartre made it the subject of great art. The fence did not have any other purpose but to be work of art, to be beautiful for a few days."
And not just be beautiful anywhere, because Christo wants more and more "to be removed outside the protective parameters, outside the art system of museums, galleries, institution," Sitting, as it is, out where art isn't suppose to sit, Christo says his work "becomes much more vital. It makes a lot of people think about it, and the most important thing about art if thinking, I only haveintuition about the piece; it becomes larger than my imagination."
Since the finished product, no matter what it is, is only taken a temporary thing, usually to be taken down in a couple of weeks, equally important in Christo's scheme of things is what he calls " the software" the planning and yes, the conflict, that leads to the actuality.
"The important thing is that I don't go someplace imposing my will, I only start to scratch the soil and the feedback reaction, the energy starts," he explains. "Some forces try to stop it, some forces try to kill it. No matter how much they try to refuse, people will be obliged to think about it, making the project richer and richer. How to put it - the forces against it, making the project richer and richer. How to put it - the forces against it help build the energy." They too, in spite of themselves, become part of Christo's conception of art.
Horror momentarily crosses Christo's face when asked if he would do a project that no one would obect to. No, never. It is for that reason to accept commissions , the reason he has chosen for his next major work a veritable Gordian knot of twisted emotions: his plan to wrap Berlin's Reichstag.
Gleefully, Christo relates the building's angst-ridden past. The Kaiser hated it, Hitler had it burned, Marshall Zhukov practically destroyed it when the Russians took Berlin. Six hundred feet high, it is almost entirely in the British zone, almost but not quite: one side sits squarely in Soviet-dominated East Berlin. "On the East-Berlin side it faces an enormous, empty avenue, very Kafkaesque, while in West Berlin it is capitialic, urban, chaotic," Christo says happily. "Incredible!"
Also incredible are the problems involved in getting permission to loosely cover the building with very thick industrial fabric and thousands of yards of rope so that "with the wind underneath the fabric, it will look like breathing, a very rich, continuous motion." Potential trouble with East Germany aside, Christo is still having trouble he hopes he has licked with creation of a prestigious, 14-man board of directors to push it through.
"Of course it is this reason (the problems) we are doing this project," he admits, but there is another one. "All my work recently has been in the so-called capitalist system, but I was born in a Communist country and I have a strong affinity for East-West relations," Christo explains. "There is only one place where these relations meet with great emphasis, and that is the Reichstag."
His art may seem the height of western decadence, and ditto for his method of paying for his project s by turning each one into a corporation, headed by his wife, for the sale of collages and drawings about the work. But Christo claims that much of the inspiration for all he's done, the germ of his idea of total art, came from work back home in Bulgaria.
Born Christo Javacheff on June 13, 1935, he had, from the age of 7, "A private tutor to teach me art." Later, as a student in a Communist state, "I was obliged to give time to the party, like the Red Guards in China." And when a Cold War crisis sealed the Bulgarian border to the West except fot the prestigious Orient Express train, Christo was one of those assigned to turn the trackside into a sort of Potemkin village.
We were told that the area around the train should look prosperous for the westerners," he remembers. "I was an artist, and I was told to work outside, in physical space, to tell the people, "Put the hay here, put the machinery here, the loading trucks there." From that perhaps developed my flavor to talk to people outside the academic world, people not in art school."
When he emigrated to Paris, Christo began by "transforming the most common things, tin cans, bottles," finally progressing to his present grand designs, of which he says, "each project is a great university for me.The fence was learning about ecology, with the Reichstag I am learning about foreign affairs." And next for the master of the temporary will be as-yet unfinalized project that will be disigned tot stay around for a while. But nowhere near here.
"Western culture," says Christo, who should know," does not have any sense of permanence."