Christo talks of art

College of Charleston professors John Hull (left) and Marian Mazzone talk with artist Christo on Tuesday at the Gibbes Museum of Art.

Brad Nettles

Conceptual artist Christo, who has achieved international fame as an innovative manipulator of landscapes, visited Charleston on Tuesday for a presentation before a packed house at Memminger Auditorium. He was invited by the Gibbes Museum of Art.

Christo and his wife and longtime collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, created art together for half a century. Jeanne-Claude died in November.

In 1964, they left Communist Bulgaria for New York City, which remained their home base. The projects are enormous undertakings that require years -- sometimes decades -- of planning and can cost millions of dollars. None are commissioned; Christo only creates the art he wants to create, he said. If other people like it, great.

Among his early projects were the 1969 Wrapped Coast of Little Bay near Sydney, Australia; the 40-mile-long Running Fence in California; and Surrounded Islands for which the artists laid huge swathes of pink fabric around a series of small shoals in Miami's Biscayne Bay.

Later, Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin, the Pont-Neuf in Paris and 178 trees in Switzerland. They installed 1,340 giant blue umbrellas in Japan and 1,760 giant yellow umbrellas in California. And they mounted 7,503 orange "gates" (floating sheets of fabric) along more than 20 miles of paths in New York City's Central Park.

He said he funds his massive projects by selling original art made in a studio, including detailed preparation drawings. The bureaucracy involved in each enterprise can be overwhelming, requiring years of negotiations, documentation, consultations with land owners and planning with engineers. Once a project is approved, it takes two more years to fabricate the necessary materials, he said.

The huge environmental art concepts -- which come in two kinds, urban and rural -- always are installed in places that people use, he said. They remain accessible to the public only for 14 days then disappear from sight. Materials are recycled.

The impermanence of the art is part of what makes it so compelling. Suddenly the landscape is transformed, and the public reaction is usually positive and intense. The landscape is full of objects man-made and natural, all the result of some kind of manipulation. But most people tend to take buildings and bridges and winding rivers for granted.

Christo's work -- temporary and dramatic manipulations of longer-lasting manipulations -- forces the viewer to consider the landscape afresh, and invites him to interact with it in new ways.

Christo said he is in the last stage of the permitting process for his next installation, Over the River, which will involve the suspension of six miles of fabric eight feet above the Arkansas River in Colorado, a popular rafting destination.

It's the first time one of Christo's projects has required a federal environmental impact study, he said. If all goes smoothly, Over the River will be over the river for 14 days during the summer of 2013.