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On the go with artist Christo

“Our projects do not involve this antiseptic space, says Christo. “It’s not a screen. It’s not a photograph. It’s real wind, the real cold. All of this is why we love to do these projects, because they’re so physical.”
“Our projects do not involve this antiseptic space, says Christo. “It’s not a screen. It’s not a photograph. It’s real wind, the real cold. All of this is why we love to do these projects, because they’re so physical.”(AFP/Getty Images)

For 16 days last summer, it was nearly impossible to miss “The Floating Piers,” a ribbon of saffron-colored fabric that the artist Christo used to span a three-kilometer stretch of Lake Iseo in northern Italy.

The visually striking project, which used a floating dock system so visitors could walk across the surface of the water, drew an estimated 1.2 million people, saturating international and social media channels. Originally conceived in 1970 by Christo and his late wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, the project accomplished what so many of the couple’s high-profile public artworks have over the past half century: It placed visitors in the center of an environment transformed by art.

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“This is why these projects are memorable,” Christo said recently by telephone from his New York studio. “They’re dealing with human space. The space we live in every day. People are not going to see the work. They are literally there, in the work.”

Christo will discuss his art Oct. 27 when he delivers the Rouse Visiting Artist Lecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. The talk, which starts at 6:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public, will cover some of the couple’s earlier works, as well as describe a pair of ongoing projects: “The Mastaba,” a planned permanent sculpture in Abu Dhabi, and “Over the River,” which will suspend fabric panels above eight portions of the Arkansas River in Colorado.

“His work is extremely important for us,” said Krzysztof Wodiczko, a professor of art, design, and the public domain at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “On the one hand it’s environmental work on the grand scale, but it’s also extremely sophisticated in terms of logistics.”

Over the past 50 years, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009, have created a host of large-scale public art projects that have included wrapping the Reichstag building in Berlin, installing more than 7,500 gates in New York’s Central Park, and placing more than 3,000 umbrellas in California and Japan. The couple made it their business to work big, altering natural and built environments with what Jeanne-Claude called a “gentle disturbance” in borrowed space.

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“By borrowing that space everything in that space is enhanced — it all becomes a part of the work of art,” said Christo, who continues to credit Jeanne-Claude in his work. “We don’t invent the politics in the Reichstag. This isn’t a photograph of the Reichstag. This is the real Reichstag, and by borrowing that space we intricately absorb all the meanings of that space and the people living in that space.”

Originally from Bulgaria, Christo, whose full name is Christo Javacheff, remains one of the most widely recognized artists working today. At 81, he says he continues to work 15 hours a day in his studio. He has no car. He never learned to drive. He has no love for computers, and he talks to people over the phone only as a last resort.

It’s in keeping with an artistic ethos, he maintains, that sets him apart from much of the contemporary art world.

“Most art today is perceived in this air conditioned, very normal, nice smelling gallery or museum,” he said. “Our projects do not involve this antiseptic space. . . . It’s not a screen. It’s not a photograph. It’s real wind, the real cold. All of this is why we love to do these projects, because they’re so physical.”

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Still, the physical experience of Christo’s art often represents only a small portion of the entire project. The couple’s works can take decades of planning — solving engineering challenges, persuading communities, negotiating with governments — before they are finally realized. Both the Reichstag project and the “Gates” took roughly a quarter century of preparation. “Floating Piers” was originally conceived during the Nixon administration, and “Mastaba,” which has yet to be realized, was first proposed some 40 years ago.

“Even before the work is there to see or experience it is already public,” said Wodiczko, who will introduce Christo at Thursday night’s lecture. “It already engages various publics. It’s a great mobilization of minds around an aesthetic project.”

The sheer length of the process also affects the final outcome, as new technologies (and locations) come on line. When Christo and Jeanne-Claude originally conceived “Floating Piers,” for instance, they planned to cover pontoons with a fabric-shrouded wooden deck in the Rio de la Plata, between Argentina and Uruguay.

The original project fell through. By the time Christo began working with the Italians, however, engineers had developed a new interlocking floating-dock system.

“The project benefited aesthetically,” he said. “There are so many new things.”

Christo does not charge admission to his works. He funds the projects, which can cost upwards of $20 million, through the sale of original artworks. He also maintains a battery of lawyers to ensure the projects aren’t “related to this banal commercialization that often happens.”

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“This is why we don’t accept commissions,” he said. “We don’t accept any sponsorship. It’s our money, our decision. We pay for the project, and we decide how it will be done.”

All told, the couple has successfully realized 23 projects, failing to gain permission for 36 others, said Christo. He added that, despite the daunting logistics, the main reason projects remain unrealized oftentimes is that “they are not any more in our heart.”

By contrast, Christo said he continues to work determinedly on both “Mastaba” and “Over the River.”

“Both projects are extremely advanced,” he said, adding that both entailed “very complex permitting processes.” “We know how to build them, how they will be done.”

He added that “Over the River,” which was originally conceived in 1992, is held up in court following a legal challenge. Meanwhile, he said that “Mastaba,” a massive sculpture that would comprise some 410,000 barrels, had “a great chance [of] moving ahead.”

“I hope I’ll see at least one of them while I’m still alive,” he said. “I’m optimistic.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com.