Everyone learned the platitude that it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts. Having seen the recently-opened Christo and Jeanne-Claude exhibition (the artists go by their first names only) at the Phillips Collection, I beg to differ. As far as large-scale environmental art installations are concerned, I’d rather skip the boring, behind-the-scenes journey and just enjoy my destination-in this case, the Arkansas River in Colorado.
For two weeks in August of 2012, Christo and Jeanne-Claude will cover a 40 mile stretch of the Arkansas River with 5.9 miles of translucent silver fabric, seeking to explore naturalistic transformations brought about by sunlight. The installation, like all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s works, is expected to be environmentally friendly and will be dismantled at the end of the two week period.
The Phillips exhibition, entitled “Over the River: a Work in Progress,” is exactly what it promises: a work in progress. Billed as a preview of the upcoming project, the show features a selection of drawings, photographs, maps, and samples of the canopy’s material, alongside a 2000 page environmental report, technical data, and other preparatory project paraphernalia collected since the project’s conception in 1992. In short, the usual behind-the-scenes work that most people leave behind the scenes. But Christo and Jeanne-Claude are not most people.
The husband and wife team, who have worked as a duo since 1961 and were even born on the same day, have made their name with high profile environmental art installations. “The Gates” in Central Park, their most recent completed work, consisted of 7,503 gates adorned with saffron colored hangings. They are also well known for their wrapping projects, having wrapped the Pont Neuf in Paris and the Reichstag in Berlin in billowing fabric.
At 73, the two artists remain controversial and relevant. At least, one would hope that’s the case, given that they will occupy the Phillips Exhibition space for over three months with what currently looks like a costly science fair display.
The duo’s finished works themselves are thought-provoking. The dichotomy between the projects’ monumental and ephemeral nature is obvious, as is the idea that human beings have a special love for things that do not last.
In a recent interview, Jeanne-Claude compared their art to a child, not purposefully created to be enjoyed. If it brings joy, that is an added bonus. Christo and Jeanne-Claude fund their high-cost projects with personal funds from the sales of preparatory drawings and past works, and then simply dismantle their installations about two weeks after opening, rather than waiting for a high profile gallery to offer them a lucrative buyout deal.
Interestingly, the artists do not accept commissions, working entirely from their own ideas, nor do they accept sponsorship, allowing themselves absolute artistic freedom. Taken out of the construct of a museum, their art becomes accessible to everyone, thus losing the elitist pretensions often associated with the art world.
So why doesn’t the current exhibition exude the energy and elegance of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work? Preliminary sketches, the woes of bureaucratic hoop-jumping, and overly-detailed proposals will always be the necessary elements of a grand-scale outdoor project, but they have no real place in a gallery.
Perhaps this is the artists’ satiric commentary on contemporary society’s obsession with overexposure, sharing even the dullest details of life with anyone who cares to look. Still, call me old-fashioned, but there is a reason why when stores change their window displays, they cover up the process. Not all work in progress is captivating.
Another childhood maxim that has stayed with me is that honesty is always the best policy. This installment of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work is the perfect demonstration that maybe some things are better left in the dark of the artists’ studio.