An encounter with Christo at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni

Christo signing autographs in Rome
Whilst the Auditorium Parco della Musica may have stolen my heart as top music venue in the city, the Palazzo delle Esposizioni continues to woo me for the top spot of Rome's best exhibition space! Yesterday evening's event – an encounter with the artist Christo, back in Rome some thirty-six years after wrapping Porta Pinciana in January 1974 – once again demonstrated the calibre and importance of this arts centre. I fell in love with the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude when I first saw the wonderful documentary Running Fence as an art student many years ago, so I was thrilled to have the chance to see the man in person.

Speaking to a packed room, with an encouraging number of young people making up a large part of the enthusiastic audience, Christo began the talk with the very sad news that his wife Jeanne-Claude, had died just over a year ago. His partner in life and art for over forty years – they even shared the same date of birth on 13 June, 1935 – Jeanne-Claude may no longer be with us physically, but her collaboration with Christo was clearly intrinsic to the realisation of all their works and he proceeded, rather movingly, to speak of her only in the present tense during the entire evening.

In what turned out to be an exhaustive review of almost their entire creative output, Christo then gave an illustrated talk with over eighty slides looking at their temporary past projects such as the world famous Wrapped Reichstag in Berlin, the breathtaking Wrapped Coast in Little Bay, Australia, as well as more recently completed urban installations such as the poetic The Gates in Central Park, New York City. The main purpose of the talk, however, was to take a closer look at two artworks in progress - Over The River: Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado, consisting of fabric panels suspended horizontally and following the changing course of the river, slated for a period of two consecutive weeks in August 2014 (permission pending) and The Mastaba: Project for United Arab Emirates, a work of art made of approximately 410,000 horizontally stacked oil barrels standing taller than ever the highest pyramid. Both projects have already been in the planning stages for years (in the case of Mastaba, for decades) and serve to demonstrate the sheer immensity of work, the years of dogged determination and patient negotiations involved, in the preparation and planning of any one of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's previous works.

As Christo explained in what was both a lengthy and lively question and answer session after the talk, this preparative period is necessarily part and parcel of the the entire work and does not detract from the final result. Some elements, he explained, such as the choice of which colours to use, were the result of testing and experimenting on scale models in situ and were decided relatively late in the development stages. In The Umbrellas, Joint Project for Japan and USA, for example, the choices of blue for Japan and yellow for USA, were linked very much to the climate and surrounding landscape of the respective sites in Ibaraki and California .

Signed by Christo!
What was most striking about Christo during this more spontaneous part of the evening, was his willingness to answer in great detail and with total transparency questions from which other artists might shy away, such as how he manages to finance mammoth projects costing tens of millions of dollars. All projects are entirely self-financed through the sale of the studies, preparatory drawings, collages, scale models, early works, and original lithographs, with Christo and Jeanne-Claude having always acted as their own art dealers. Their business acumen, in fact, so impressed the Harvard Business Review that they published a case study looking at how they have managed to finance such spectacular multi-million dollar projects. There were three topics he would not answer questions about, however, as he announced with a smile at the beginning of the evening – religion, politics and other artists!

Generous to a fault, Christo stayed behind after the event to sign catalogues or posters with a distinctive blue pencil – a wonderful souvenir of a very special occasion.