Christo and Jeanne-Claude are probably two of the most provocative contemporary artists. Their environmental artwork causes intense controversy because it challenges the ways people see and think about nature, the use of technology, and the purpose and definition of art. For the last 50 years, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have become known for projects like the wrapping and unwrapping of one million square feet of coastline with erosion-control fabric, the installation and removal of a running fence of two million square feet woven nylon fabric, the surrounding of eleven islands with 6.5 million square feet of floating, shiny pink polypropylene fabric, the filling of two valleys in Japan and the US with 3,100 yellow and blue umbrellas, the wrapping of the Reichstag with silvery fabric, or the installation of 7,503 gates with bright orange curtains in Central Park. Undoubtedly, this unconventional art form causes people to ask questions about the purpose, the resources or the associated environmental impacts. According to Jeanne-Claude, there is no particular purpose: "We do not create symbols. We do not create messages. We only create a work of art, of joy and beauty, which has absolutely no purpose whatsoever. We believe it will be beautiful, and we wish to see it. And the only way to see it is to build it."
The projects usually cost several million dollars and the artists finance all of their work themselves, through selling Christo’s preparatory drawings and collages. Christo has his own corporation (he is the president, vice president, treasurer and secretary) and has developed his own business model due to the belief that “the only way to work in total freedom is to pay for it,…even if it means that we have to be our own gallery, our own art dealer.” This detachment from institutions represents a unique way of being an artist in today’s world. In fact, some people believe that Christo and Jeanne-Claude do not fit the definition of artists: “Other artists often called us entrepreneurs, and we used to take that as an insult. Then one day a friend of ours, the Swiss collector Torsten Lilja, said to us: “An entrepreneur is somebody who enterprises, and enterprise you certainly do.” Well, I wish someone had told us this earlier. In the meantime we have even been subject of a case study by the Harvard Business School – The Art of the Entrepreneur.”
In creating their artwork, Christo and Jeanne-Claude bring together and cooperate with architects, scientists, professional climbers, construction workers, federal commissioners, professional seamstresses, and engineers. As a result, all these people get to apply their knowledge and skills in an alternative context and to interact with nature and technology in new ways. Instead of working towards maximizing efficiency and assimilating aspects of the natural world, the people involved in the art projects strive to create systems that take embrace all aspects of the natural world. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s last piece, called Over the River (which federal regulators actually approved this week! http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/08/us/United-States-Approves-Christos-Over-the-River-Project-in-Colorado.html), has “already made history for its interconnection of art and public participation, with a federal environmental impact statement that drew thousands of comments.”
Despite the artists’ claims that there is no purpose behind their art, their work achieves much meaning. According to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s website, The Umbrellas “reflected the similarities and differences in the ways of life and the use of the land in two inland valleys,” one in Japan and the other in the US; “Surrounded Islands was a work of art underlining the various elements and ways in which the people of Miami live, between land and water.” In addition, pieces like Running Fence or Ocean Front resemble Goldsworthy’s work (the stone fence and the structures subject to the ebb and flow of water). All these projects are meant to be ephemeral and even though Christo and Jeanne-Claude use synthetic materials, everything gets recycled when disassembled. In this way, the two “entrepreneur artists” offer yet another alternative way of understanding and engaging with the natural world. Christo’s most important message is not to focus on purposes and messages because they “can be political, religious, commercial – they are all propaganda. I will never do art with messages. Our projects are much more complex, much more meaningful than any illustrative art.”