Disappearance and Photography in Post-Object Art: Christo and Jeanne-Claude

By Green, Charles | Afterimage, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Disappearance and Photography in Post-Object Art: Christo and Jeanne-Claude


Green, Charles, Afterimage


The artistic collaboration between husband and wife team Christo and Jeanne-Claude represents a transition from traditional individual artistic identity to a more complex effacement of individual collaborators and to the identification of the collaboration itself as an artwork. Their temporary works of art survive only through documentation such as photographs, films and books. This is no accident for disappearance is crucial to the works' integrity. The couple's photo-documentations exist at the intersection of photography and early 1970s conceptual art. They are inscribed within shifting ideas of artwork and the role of the artist.

In 1969, Sydney art collector and patron John Kaldor invited Christo and Jeanne-Claude to give a series of lectures in Australia. There, Christo and Jeanne-Claude completed the first of Kaldor's "Art Projects," Wrapped Coast, Little Bay, One Million Square Feet, Sydney, Australia, 1969. [1] The piece attracted enormous local media coverage and considerable international attention. The London art magazine Studio International ran the following description:

Christo's latest package, 1,000,000 sq. ft. of the Australian coastline at Little Bay, near Sydney covering a frontage of approximately one mile, was realized for the period 1 to 28 November. Using a poly-propylene fabric, 35 miles of rope, two-way radios and an estimated 17,000 man-hours, and despite southerly gales and pyromaniac hooligans, Christo wrapped up rocks to a height of 84 feet. Sponsors were the Aspen Centre of Contemporary Art, Colorado, and Christo himself. [2]

These bare facts hide several stories that typify Christo and Jeanne-Claude's temporary artworks of the next three decades, and that reflect their nomadic, mobile artistic identity. Wrapped Coast, Little Bay, One Million Square Feet, Sydney, Australia was the couple's first major environmental sculpture. Even though Christo alone was credited for the work at the time, he and Jeanne-Claude worked as a team on the piece and shared responsibility for its completion. Jeanne-Claude was responsible for all of the project administration. Beginning in the 1980s, Christo and Jeanne-Claude rigorously and sternly insisted on retrospective joint reattribution of all works from the late 1960s onward, including Wrapped Coast, Little Bay, One Million Square Feet, Sydney, Australia, even though Christo's interviews continued to carry little reference to his partner Jeanne-Claude's role in the works. At first seems surprising given the couple's determined insistence on joint attribution of "Christo's" works when negotiations with magazines and researchers for exhibition participation, copyright clearance or caption checking took place. [3] But I believe Christo and Jeanne-Claude altered their attitudes and opinions about the public acknowledgement of their collaboration without wishing this shift to be solidly pinned down. As signs of intense individuality the work was recognized in critical commentary and newspaper cartoons and gained a level of trademark recognition achieved by very few other artists (e.g., Jackson Pollock's drips, Joseph Beuys's hat and Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup cans). [4] But the work was the product of two artists:

Nous approchons d'un espace plein de ressources. Au depart, nous empruntons l'espace et subitement nous essayons de creer des obstacles, des divisions, des difficultes. (We come to a space and create a subtle disturbance. Basically, we borrow a space and all of a sudden we make obstacles, divisions, and difficulties.) [5]

In a joint 1994 interview with Christo, Jeanne-Claude said, "I'm not only an administrator of Christo's beautiful ideas. For instance, The Surrounded Islands was my idea. Most of the people don't know that." [6] If, in a 1989 interview, Christo seemed to deny this, it seems more likely that he was distinguishing between his authorial name--the name "Christo" for which he had become famous--and the names of the two artists behind that brand name. …

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