Celebrate Christo!

Art and auctions, Film Industry, Story of the Month — By on June 4, 2018 at 3:55 AM

The Mastaba being built on the Serpentine.

Celebrate Christo! His ‘revolutionising art’ is saluted by Bulgarians in London

By James Brewer

Christo, Bulgarian-born and for much of his life a resident of New York, is a revolutioniser of visual art.

That description was bestowed by Konstantin Dimitrov, ambassador of the Republic of Bulgaria as he introduced in London the UK premieres of two full-scale films featuring the artist renowned for his formidable, prodigious projects.

Film director Georgi Balabanov.

Like Leonardo da Vinci, Christo envisages portentous feats of engineering and hydrodynamics, but on the industrial plane of the 20th and 21st century rather than the 16th. Christo has the same ability as the Renaissance polymath to put a mark on his epoch, but in his case, the physicality of his contributions is erased after just a few weeks.

In his first public outdoor work in the UK, being completed for June 18, 2018, Christo is stacking 7,506 oil drums on a floating platform in the Serpentine, Hyde Park, to form a pyramidal structure called Mastaba after the ancient Egyptian tombs which were “houses for eternity.” In his usual “hands-on” style, Christo has been in London with his nephew Vladimir who lives in the ancient town of Sozopol by the Black Sea, to direct the undertaking.

To honour his spectacular impact on the international artistic and cultural sphere, Bulgarian interests put together a programme under the title Celebrate Christo!

Two compelling films about Christo.

His most ambitious work among many – including wrapping bridges, valleys, coastlines and islands on a grand scale – was the draping in fabric of the massive Reichstag, the parliament building in Berlin. His have been described as “temporary works that last forever.”

His fame matches the stature of his creations; and who outside Bulgaria realises that he has a brother with substantial accomplishments in a parallel artform, that of acting? In contrast to Christo, who fled Bulgaria in his twenties when the country was in the grip of a Soviet regime, brother Anani and many contemporaries still feel disconsolate that they stayed behind.

Evgenia Atanassova-Teneva and Phillip Bergson.

In the 72-minute documentary The Frontier of Our Dreams, directed and scripted by Georgi Balabanov and released in 1996, the two brothers with the surname Yavachav (there is a third brother, Stefan, who is a chemist but who does not figure in the same milieu) reunite after many years. The film is revealingly as much about Anani as his more celebrated brother. Anani says that from the beginning he was the better artist of the two, but Christo was more energetic and hard-driving: “he had a gift from God.”

Their mother, Tsveta Dimitrova, was secretary of the Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia, and their father ran a factory for treating fabrics with chemicals. When some material disappeared from the factory, the innocent father was arrested as a “saboteur,” to the inevitable distress of the family. Ironically, Christo was, after he had made the leap to freedom, to make his name in pioneering applications of fabrics – and recycling them – in the expression of his artistic concepts.

A swan’s eye view of Mastaba.

Christo fled in 1957 by stowing away on a train, first to Prague and then Vienna, then living in Paris, before settling in the US. Anani became an acclaimed actor, in roles, respected but haunted by regrets over failing to break for the outside world.

Evgenia with Svetla Dionisieva.

On the “freedom” side of the frontier of dreams, Christo sheered off into unorthodoxy, and determinedly puts this into practice.  He spends 14 hours a day in his New York studio, where he has lived for nearly half a century, designing his installations, while his chain-smoking wife, Jeanne-Claude (who died in 2009 and whose name Christo insists is linked with his on all attributions of his ventures) answers a stream of phone calls about financing and logistics.

Throughout the two films currently shown, Christo is seen to possess a remarkable charisma, and those who have worked with him say that he has the impassioned, emotional responses that a child might have.

Christo distances himself from his native land, which under the ancien régime had branded him as a defector and traitor, and even professes to have lost his fluency in Bulgarian, although it instantly returns when he sits down with Anani to leaf through photos reminding them of their childhood in the town of Gabrovo, by the river Yantra at the foot of the Balkan Mountains.

Press conference: Ioanna Peeva, Evgenia Atanassova-Teneva, Georgi Balabanov.

The second film, Bridge to Christo, a 35-minute documentary made for Bulgarian National Television, is a close-up in glorious colour of how an “impossible” scheme drew more than a million people to “walk on water” in participating, in a temporary work of art, that had the backing of local government and of institutions.

The enterprise was “The Floating Piers,” a 3 km gleaming, fabric walkway connecting two small islands in Lake Iseo in northern Italy and their mainland.

Enter once more into our story Leonardo, for the mountains overlooking the lake were probably those that inspired the backdrop to the Mona Lisa. The novelist George Sand wrote there in 1857. Christo “saw something new and different” there from those two people of genius, says the commentary to the film.

Mrs Dionisieva (front), Admiral Kosta Andreev and his wife (right); embassy
financial director Yasen Vasilkyov, and Evgenia Vasilkyova

The pier concept was originally proposed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude for other locations. First it was to have been 2000 Metres Wrapped, Inflated Pier at the River Plate, Argentina, in 1970, and later it was intended as The Daiba Project, Project for Odaiba Park, for Tokyo Bay in 1996. Neither of those were able to overcome the hurdles of technical, bureaucratic, environmental and economic objections and snags.

At the Italian site, Christo ordered floating pontoons of high density polyethylene to be anchored to the lake bed and covered with iridescent and rippled orange nylon fabric. The installation surface glowed golden in bright sunshine, and as night fell was lit by the moon and artificial lights. The orange boulevard with its sloping edges swayed gently on the water, and the urging of Christo’s team to people stepping on to it was: “You need to feel the wind, the rain and the sun.”

The outstanding scriptwriter and journalist Evgenia Atanassova-Teneva – who has written a book about the Lake Iseo operation and is working on a biography of Christo – went so far as to gain her pilot’s licence to take a boat on the lake as one of hundreds of people hired or volunteering. In the film, she shows how Christo is an integral part of the construction team, from the trials in 2014 at a “secret” location in northern Germany, to the triumphant launch date.

Mike Sarne chats with Georgi Balabanov

She told a press conference the day before the screenings that “the film was never intended to be shot, but it was just some kind of internal feeling that pushed me to go ahead and make the film.”

Featuring some stunning aerial photography, the film follows the creative process of what became the biggest art event of 2016. In their 16 days of existence in June and July, the piers attracted 1.2m people, a financial boost for the region but a more questionable environmental gain in terms of pressure on the small town and hinterland. Whether this was a net gain in tourism for Lombardy or Italy as a whole may be impossible to calculate.

At the end of its lifespan, the €18m walkway – financed like all Christo’s projects by a combination of sales of his conventional art and by sponsorship – was disassembled and the parts recycled and sold.

His previous outdoor installation was in 2005, when he and Jeanne-Claude fixed 7,500 saffron-hung gates in Central Park in New York. In an effect that was to be echoed at Lake Iseo, that installation was likened to a golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees. Elsewhere he had masterminded Valley Curtain in Colorado, the 39 km-long Running Fence in California, Ocean Front over the waves at Rhode Island, and encircled 11 islands in Biscayne Bay, Miami, with pink fabric. In 1969, Christo & Jeanne-Claude produced Wrapped Coast covering 2.5 km of shoreline at Little Bay, Sydney, Australia.

Pianist Sally Wave (Dr Savelina Kancheva).

Directed by Lubomir Pechev, Bridge to Christo has both amateur and professional footage and ramps up to a finale of interviews with people delighted at having experienced what was a unique social experiment.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude were born on the same day, June 13, 1935, and met in Paris in October 1958. They collaborated to create, new ways of seeing and experiencing landscapes, or as one critic put it, “revelation through concealment.”

None of their major artworks exist for a long time beyond their initial “unveiling” – to use an inappropriate word. There is something of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude philosophy in the statement by famed photographer Man Ray: “A game of chess leaves no material traces.” The huge effort that goes into each project turns on its head the concept of “ready-mades” of Marcel Duchamp, and ultimately nothing is left but the sketches and paper plans.

The couple’s first collaboration was in 1961, Stacked Oil Barrels and Dockside Packages, Cologne Harbour. Enter their use of oil barrels, in this instance along with rolls of paper, tarpaulin and rope.

In 1985 they wrapped the oldest bridge in Paris – the 400-year-old Pont Neuf where they had courted – in a silky-looking fabric that was golden sandstone in colour, an operation completed without interfering with traffic on the Seine. In a film made about that project, Jack Lang, then French minister of culture, says: “Never did anyone look at the Pont Neuf as much as on the day that it was hidden. Christo teaches us to see.”

Now Londoners and visitors to one of its most popular parks can “learn to see” in a similar way. Christo is creating a huge temporary sculpture with the full title of The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake).

It has been under construction since April and the plan is for it to float on the Serpentine from June 18, weather permitting, until September 23, 2018, when it will meet the same fate as Christo’s other structures.

Banitsa delicacies

On a floating platform are 7,506 specially-made, horizontally-stacked, red and white barrels, the whole being 20 m high by 30 m wide by 40 m long.

The platform is of high-density polyethylene cubes secured with weighted anchors. The total weight is 500 tons. It takes up only 1% of the total surface area of the lake, but you cannot miss it during a stroll in the park.

Complementing the endeavour is an exhibition at the nearby Serpentine Galleries exploring the role of barrel forms in the oeuvre of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. They had hit upon the barrel notion initially for the sculptural effect it could yield, and the low cost The exhibition, from June 19 to September 9, 2018, will include sculptures, drawings, collages and photographs from the past 60 years.

Christo has said in a statement: “I am excited to realise this temporary outdoor sculpture in the UK this summer. Like with all my projects, the construction, maintenance and removal of artwork will be entirely funded by me through the sale of my original works of art. The London Mastaba in Hyde Park will be absolutely free to the public—no tickets, no reservations and no owners. It will belong to everyone (until it’s gone).”

The advent of the Mastaba has given the opportunity for improvements including ecological works on the Serpentine Island, the creation of habitats for birds and bats, litter clearance of the lake and re-treatment of the system that protects the lake from algal bloom.

At the film showings on May 31 and at a press conference the previous day, director Georgi Balabanov, scriptwriter Evgenia Atanassoa-Teneva had talked about the making of the productions, and their involvement with the protagonists. They were introduced by leading film critic Phillip Bergson, and supported by Svetla Dionisieva (director) and Ioanna Peeva on behalf of the Bulgarian Cultural Institute in London.

Invitations to the screenings had been extended by the ambassador and his wife Nadya Dimitrova, by Mrs Dionisieva, by the Bulgarian Cultural Institute and by the British Bulgarian Society.

The films were presented in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s magnificently built Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre, which dates from 1869 and was substantially refurbished in 2011.

Ahead of the screenings, the ambassador had welcomed guests to a reception at the embassy in Queen’s Gate. Mr Dimitrov, a former deputy Bulgarian foreign minister for European affairs, is also permanent representative of Bulgaria to the International Maritime Organization.

Personalities from the diplomatic service, business, charity, entertainment, hospitality and media sectors were among those invited to enjoy fine Bulgarian wines and canapes of national specialities such as banitsa (a recipe of eggs, feta cheese in filo pastry).

One of our photos shows Mrs Dionisieva (front), Admiral Andreev who is Military, Air and Naval Attaché and his wife (right); next to Admiral Andreev is the embassy financial director Yasen Vasilkyov and his wife Evgenia Vasilkyova (left).

Among those present from the world of theatre was actor and director Mike Sarne, who had a 1960s hit with the novelty song Come Outside.

Guests at the embassy were enchanted by the exquisite pianism of Sally Wave (Dr Savelina Kancheva) whose programme ranged from a nocturne by 20th century Bulgarian composer Veselin Stoyanov, through nocturnes, impromptus and waltzes by Chopin, to impromptus by Schubert and movements from sonatas by Beethoven, culminating with a selection of film music.

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