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Environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude someday may be remembered as much for artful navigation of government bureaucracy as they are for spectacular and beautiful creations such as "Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin" and "Running Fence."
Right now, 75-year-old Christo (his collaborator and wife, Jeanne-Claude, died in November 2009) is awaiting word from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management this summer on whether he can proceed with the couple's next work, "Over the River, Arkansas River, Colorado."
The 19-year process behind the controversial artwork included an environmental impact statement that received more than 4,000 comments from around the globe. The project involves nearly six miles of silvery fabric, 35 miles of steel cable and 42 miles of the Arkansas River.
"Jeanne-Claude and I are the only artists in the world that people discuss argue for and against the projects before the works of art exist," Christo says, smiling over the Skype connection from his New York studio. "You never discuss a painting before it's painted. You never discuss a sculpture before it is a sculpture. It creates a tremendous amount of expectation. It creates a different kind of public participatory art."
The poetry of governmental red tape • Christo, who will be in Utah for a lecture at the University of Utah on Tuesday, sees the bureaucratic struggles with government agencies ranging from the German Parliament ("Wrapped Reichstag") to the Colorado Transportation Department as the "poetic dimension of our work." He habitually refers to the late Jeanne-Claude in the present tense. "We are always optimistic."
The "Over the River" project began during the Clinton administration. Then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt supported Christo and Jeanne-Claude's vision and told his deputy assistant, Utah native Pat Shea, to help the artists achieve it.
"I was sitting quietly at my desk at BLM when Secretary Babbitt called and told me to get with them and see what we could do to help," recalls Shea, now a lawyer in Salt Lake City. "My first reaction as a Westerner was that someone who drapes buildings or puts hundreds of umbrellas up in Japan is not what I would consider art."
But Shea had dinner with the couple, and they promptly converted him. The then-bureaucrat was impressed that Christo and Jeanne-Claude's temporary works, though monumental, never harm the environment and instead bring a deeper awareness to it. "It highlights a part of the world that we might ignore," Shea says. "Sometimes the most mundane or pedestrian takes on a beauty in their work that, even when the lens is removed, remains in your eye."
Over and through the river • But before the project could be completed on the river, which flows through south-central Colorado near Colorado Springs, the Bush administration came to power and the artwork was again mired in bureaucracy. "There was no way that cowboys and oil people were going to approve something by an outlandish artist," Shea says.
Now, Christo, with final approval in sight, hopes the Arkansas River project will be erected in August 2014. But controversy still rages, including such questions as how the two-week installation will alter the environment, the economy and the culture of the small towns along the Arkansas River.
Intrinsic to all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's projects is that they don't accept sponsorships or grants, charge admission or otherwise make money off the completed artworks. Christo sells his preparatory drawings and earlier artworks to finance the projects, so as to protect what he sees as his absolute freedom as an artist. "Nobody needs these projects," he says. "Jeanne-Claude and I need these projects. If somebody likes them it's a bonus."
Though the couple lived in the same New York City apartment for 46 years, they never installed an elevator to his fifth-floor studio. "I walk up 90 steps, 15 times a day. Instead of things like that, we are spending money on the art."
Christo says he hasn't envisioned any new projects beyond "Over the River" and "The Mastaba," a stacked oil-drum project planned for the United Arab Emirates. "Jeanne-Claude and I, we are very slow thinkers," he says. "If it were going to happen [a new project], I would tell you. I am concentrat[ing] on pulling off 'Over the River.' "
Future art inspired by Utah's industrial scars? • Shea's relationship with the couple continued over the years, and he finally extracted a promise from Christo to lecture at the University of Utah. He wanted Christo to visit the state, in part, to expose him to the state's natural wonders. "I wanted them to see our landscape and beauty. And let them convert people like they converted me to their vision of beauty."
Utah has a large supply of another visual dimension industrial scars that might entice the artist. "We use space highly manipulated by people," Christo says of the couple's urban- and rural-based projects. The Arkansas River, for instance, which is sandwiched between U.S. Highway 50 and Union Pacific Railroad tracks, is hardly pristine. Christo calls it a "very lived river."
The project will require local workers, including highly skilled technicians, to build and anchor it. "It will be blown onto the site using rock climbers who will walk literally on the fabric," Christo says. "It will be spectacular."
Shea looks forward to the completion of "Over the River." "With their art, Jeanne-Claude and Christo create community," he says. "The country needs a sense of community more than any other time in our history."
Art, all wrapped up
Artist Christo will give a lecture Tuesday, April 19, at the University of Utah's Kingsbury Hall, but all the tickets have been allocated. You can, however, stand in line on the chance of a no-show seat becoming available.
Notes on the artists • For more information on Christo and Jeanne-Claude, visit http://www.christojeanneclaude.net/
Notes on "Over the River" project • Visit http://www.overtheriverinfo.com