An insatiable passion for wrapping walls, islands, coastlines and public monuments with fabric has given avant-garde artist Christo a certain experience in dealing with government bureaucracies.
He has had to do battle with an assortment of recalcitrant town councils, police inspectors and environmental groups. But his latest project has involved bureaucracy at its highest level. This project -- wrapping up the Pont Neuf -- required that he get the approval of the president of the French Republic himself.
When Parisians wake up Sept. 23 to find their oldest and, some would say, most beautiful bridge encased in light beige nylon, they will be witnessing the culmination of a 20-year dream of the artist's. Wrapping the Pont Neuf, said Christo, is "the most civilized, the most cultural, the most urban project I have yet undertaken."
To wrap the bridge for two weeks, Christo first had to persuade local residents that it was a good idea. He then had to convince the neo-Gaullist mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, whose office is responsible for the city's sidewalks.
But that was only the beginning. The ministry of culture had to give its authorization since it is in charge of public monuments; the ministry of transport because it is responsible for all traffic underneath the bridge on the Seine. And, since the Pont Neuf is a "public place," it was necessary to get approval from the police.
The police, who did not see the point of wrapping a 16th-century bridge in 440,000 square feet of fabric, objected. The project seemed doomed.
Then, a month ago, the minister of culture had a quiet word with President Franc,ois Mitterrand.
"All the objections suddenly disappeared. Everything fell into place like an incredible pyramid," recalled Christo.
The Bulgarian-born artist, who is now a U.S. citizen, contrasts his French experience with what happened in Florida in 1983 when he surrounded a dozen islands in Biscayne Bay with 6 1/2 million square feet of pink polypropylene fabric. Though environmental groups were fighting him in the federal courts up to the last moment, the official permits were obtained comparatively easily.
"In the United States, there is a very strong democratic sense. Here the mentality is almost royalist. Power is invisibly concentrated in the hands of the head of state or the mayor," said Christo during an interview in his Paris headquarters before leaving for New York to make more collages to help finance the project.
It is expected to cost about $2.3 million, all of which is being raised by Christo and his French wife, Jeanne-Claude. The funds come from the sale of paintings, collages, movies and books, all of which are inspired by the project. The couple makes a point of not accepting government subsidies.
In the last days before the bridge is finally wrapped, the project will involve as many as 500 people. Christo's team includes engineers, builders and electricians, as well as specialists in mountain climbing who have already practiced on a much smaller bridge at Gres sur Loing, south of Paris.
One of Christo's first projects was here in Paris in 1962, when he blocked the Rue Visconti in the Latin Quarter with a wall of metal oil drums. Titled "Iron Curtain," the work was intended to be a "poetical gesture" both to the Berlin Wall, which had been erected the previous year, and the barricades that were going up around Paris in protest against the colonial war in Algeria.
Since then, he has wrapped up part of the Australian coast, an art museum in Chicago, a Roman wall and several miles of walkways in Kansas City, Mo. Other artistic accomplishments include the building of a 24-mile "running fence" in Northern California and the hanging of a 1,250-foot curtain across a valley in Colorado. Future ambitions include constructing 15 miles of continuous umbrellas in both Japan and California and wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin.
Christo, 50, a slight man with glasses and long, unkempt hair, objects to being labeled simply a "wrapper" or a "parceler."
"It's more complicated than that," he said. "By separating or dividing, you invite people to look more closely. Classical sculptors discovered that the clothed body is more suggestive than nude statues. Fabric is vulnerable, fragile, it invites you to touch."
By wrapping a bridge, rather than the Arc de Triomphe or the Eiffel Tower, Christo is trying to draw attention to the importance of the river in Paris. It was because of the river that the Romans built a settlement on what is now the Ile de la Cite', and the Seine plays a dominant role in the architecture of Paris, opening up vistas through the center of the city.
Christo's hope is that Parisians and visitors will come to look at the Pont Neuf, which joins the Ile de la Cite' to both banks of the Seine, in a different way once it has been wrapped. Pedestrians will still be able to walk on the bridge, and the street lights will shine through the fabric. The packaging will accentuate the bridge's Neoclassical proportions and its 12 vertical arches.
"It's like Monet painting the cathedral at Rennes," Christo said. "He didn't say that the original cathedral was no good. He gave his own impression of it, working with little dots of paint. That's what I am doing with the Pont Neuf: interpreting it for 14 days and then giving it back to the people of Paris in its original form." CAPTION: Picture, Drawing of the Pont Neuf project, Christo's proposal to encase a Paris bridge with nylon. Photo copyright (c) by Christo