One of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s most ambitious projects is due to be completed posthumously in September, the wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. As the work started in July, Makery and Rob La Frenais got a sneak preview in an interview with curator Laure Martin-Poulet, president of “L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped”, working hands-on with the vast team initiating this gargantuan artwork.
Makery: So I can see that you’re standing by the Arc de Triomphe and it’s a hot day in Paris. How’s it going?
Laure Martin-Poulet: I can show you (pointing) It’s starting on the right. The steel cages started to be installed today to protect the sculptures.
When did you become the president of Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped and what’s your role exactly?
When the authorisation of the President of the Republic was confirmed, so Spring 2019. My role as president is to facilitate the relations with the administration, with the Centre des monuments nationaux who is in charge of the building and with the different district’s city halls in Paris and the main one, the Hotel de Ville. With Vladimir Yavachev, Christo’s nephew and director of the project, we are co-piloting this project in coordination with the Centre des monuments nationaux.
So what are the particular challenges you’re facing with the wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe now that you have permission?
We got the permission very fast and very easily which is one of the specifics of this project, because as you know it has often taken Christo and Jeanne-Claude a long time to get permission. For example, the Paris project of the Pont-Neuf Wrapped took ten years. Now the challenge is to finish it in time while respecting the monument. And happily, the installation of the project is going very well.
So have you worked with Christo before?
Yes, I worked for Christo and Jeanne-Claude for the Pont-Neuf wrapping between 1981 and 1985 and I have been working with Christo again since 2015.
So I’m going to refer to the Andrey Paounov film ‘Walking on Water’, about The Floating Piers. The film was a really intimate fly-on-the-wall view of the inside of an art project. I’m interested in the focus on Vladimir Yavachev and his relationship with Christo which was shown very well. Could you tell me more?
Vladimir started to work with Christo and Jeanne-Claude when he established himself in New York in 1991 and at that time he was 17 years old. From then, he has been working with them, and when Jeanne-Claude passed away in 2009 he became the closest person to Christo and took a central part in realizing projects such as The Floating Piers and The London Mastaba.
Following on from that now he’s co-heading the whole Arc de Triomphe wrap. Is he going to continue with the rest of the unrealised projects?
Christo and Jeanne-Claude decided a long time ago that if it happened that they had both passed away, they wanted their ongoing projects to be realised. So now, L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped is going to be realised, the last temporary work by Christo and Jeanne-Claude according to their wishes. The other work which was ongoing when Christo passed away last year was the only permanent project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude is The Mastaba in Abu Dhabi. Vladimir is working on that too.
I personally saw the Pont-Neuf being wrapped in ’85 and took pictures of it. My question is, one of the most exciting thing was being part of the public and watching the final part of the preparation with the divers and climbers etc. What will be the public’s access to the wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe, how much will be seen in the next month or so from passers-by?
The installation started on July 15th and will go on until 17th September and the most spectacular phase will be between September 12th and September 17th. The fabric and the ropes will be installed by the climbers. The fabric will be installed from the top of the arch to the bottom, so from 50m high to the ground. You must be conscious that this monument is extremely special for many reasons. Firstly it’s the symbol of the French nation, it’s a place for historical memory and there’s a daily ceremony to honour the French soldiers who died for their country. This ceremony takes place every day and throughout the installation and throughout the time the project is visible as well as during the dismantling of the project. Incidentally, this building is very different to all the other ones because it’s very high,14m higher than the Reichstag (wrapped in 1995) – and also as it’s on the top of a hill, there’s a lot of wind, so the installation has to deal with all these elements.
So in The Floating Piers, as seen dramatically in ‘Walking on Water’ weather played a very strong part in nearly killing the project. In the film we saw everyone struggling with the big storm and trying to hold on the piers. How are you going to deal with the extreme weather we now have from climate change?
The engineers worked on every option, of course – we will adapt, that’s the only thing I can say. But as usual in every project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, when Christo had the permission to do this project, the first to start working on the project were the engineers. And they are still working here now to follow up on the installation. We’ve been working with a German company called SBP who worked on The London Mastaba and also with one of the historical engineers of Christo and Jeanne-Claude projects, Vince Davenport, who was the director of the project Over The River. He is already in Paris accompanying the installation.
Obviously, health and safety is a big issue, and in The Floating Piers we saw the crisis of over-crowding. Do you have similar concerns here?
Yes, of course we are working on that, but in Paris the situation is quite different because of the location. The Arc de Triomphe is in the center of a very important and large square with a lot of cars and motorcycles driving around. We are working to welcome all visitors in the best way possible, with City Hall and the Prefecture of the police.
Do you know if historically the relationship with the authorities has changed since 1985 with the wrapping of the Pont-Neuf?
Having worked on both projects, I can say that it’s much easier to work with the different administrations today because a lot of people who occupy positions of responsibility nowadays have seen the Pont-Neuf project. It was the first large urban project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. This project left such a good memory that I can tell you it has helped us a lot to get permission so easily. I’m sure that it would have been quite different without the memory of the Pont-Neuf. For example, Philippe Bélaval, the president of the Centre des monuments nationaux has been really enthusiastic about the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude and saw the Pont-Neuf. Right from the beginning he’s given us all his support along with Serge Lavignes, Bernard Blistène, the former president and director of the Centre Pompidou and he presented the project to the President of the Republic in October 2018. Without them I think that we wouldn’t have got the permission, at least not so fast.
Can I just ask about another aspect of this? You know everyone now says Christo and Jeanne-Claude but it wasn’t so long ago that she started being publicly credited with the Christo brand.
But it started, 26 years ago with The Reichstag, Wrapped. That was the point at which the brand became Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Jeanne-Claude had been involved for quite a long time with the conception of the projects even when it was only the name of Christo that was made public. For example, it was Jeanne-Claude who had the idea for Surrounded Islands in 1983 and she didn’t co-sign the project but Christo always said that it was her idea.
It’s an interesting history, I want to ask you another historical question. I heard Christo speak in the early 80s at the Sydney Biennale and he said he’d been inspired to become a land artist when he was an art student in Communist Bulgaria where everyone had to do compulsory summer work.
Yes, he never considered his art as land art. But maybe the imposed jobs in the countryside, when he was asked with other students to rearrange the landscape in the neighbourhood alongside the track of the Orient Express, to give an idealized vision of the socialist economy, played a role. Also, when he was working for the cinema which was completely under the control of the Communist government, the rule was only to film only in situ. So he was in charge of finding the right place where the movie was to be filmed. It’s true that these two experiences in Bulgaria when he was quite young gave him a real experience of dealing with public and rural space at a large-scale. I assume that the roots of his amazing ability to develop the temporary monumental projects lay in those experiences.
Just going back to the practicalities of the Arc de Triomphe, where do the volunteers come from?
They are not volunteers. Everyone is paid. The cultural mediators are coming from France and abroad. The project is self-financed by the selling of original works by Christo, collages, drawings, scale models. All together more than 1,000 people will have worked on the project including mediators who are going to welcome the public on the site and to explain the project. And, as usual, these mediators are going to give to the public a small sample of the fabric.
Ah that’s great, I was going to ask about the fabric. During the dismantling period, about the what will happen to the material, will it be recycled?
As usual all the materials, the fabric, the ropes and the steel will be recycled.
I just want to ask an art-world question. As you explained and as we all know the projects are financed by the self-funding of the original works by Christo. Do you think there’s an uneasy or an unhealthy relation between the people who are working on the organisation of this and who are working on this and the kind of collectors large and small, as we saw in ‘Walking on Water’ with the party with the super-rich people and Christo having be polite to them?
Christo and Jeanne-Claude never organized any party on the occasion of a project. With Jeanne-Claude, Christo attended some parties out of courtesy. For Christo and Jeanne-Claude it was much more important to share the beauty of the project with the largest public possible.
I’m asking a more theoretical question about the relationship between the sales and the projects.
The self-funding was the guarantee of their freedom. The most important thing for Christo – he escaped from his country, Bulgaria, ruled by a Communist government – was freedom.
Read more on the Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s website: L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped