in Frieze | 09 AUG 95
Featured in
Issue 24

Wrap it Up

Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Reichstag Project

in Frieze | 09 AUG 95

The 60 verticalists who wrapped the Reichstag for Christo and Jeanne-Claude in June were ossis - citizens of the unified Germany who hail from the former eastern part. Consider the promising circumstances: Workers from the disbanded Communist regime find new jobs provided by the 'decadent' Western artist who, 37 years earlier, fled Hungary at the height of the cold war in a heroic search for personal and artistic freedom. At face value, this little exercise in uniting East and West appears to be one more amulet destined to decorate Christo's necklace of vistas regulated by an undifferentiating vision: snaking lines of big colourful umbrellas, wrapped bridges and running fences. Each of these crossed borders, creating, in their wake, metaphors of benevolent unification. It would all be plain sappy if the underbelly of this story from Berlin weren't so sadly naive. In the former East Germany scaffolding was uncommon and hydraulic construction lifts still a thing of the future, making verticalists highly-paid professionals. Not any more. Anyone who has been to Berlin recently will have seen lifts and scaffolding sprouting up along the eastern skyline, as the city re-fuses itself whole. In the face of the real economic difficulties that Germany has encountered while rehabilitating the old East, the verticalists' Art-temp jobs don't even cut it as scrawny symbols of economic renewal. Christo's master-manipulator metaphor of unification is merely wide-eyed political window dressing, and not without (unintended) irony. A week before the unveiling, France and the US announced their intentions to renew nuclear arms testing. So much for symbolism.

In 1971, Time magazine named Richard Nixon 'Man of the Year', Erich Honecker became the head of the East German Communist Party and Christo first proposed to wrap the Reichstag. Perhaps at the time, they all seemed good ideas. The Wall guaranteed Berlin's status as the epicentre of cold war antagonism and a wrapped Reichstag would have been an especially gratifying symbol of unification, its eastern facade falling on the Communist side of the border. But over the last quarter decade, the world has come to evaluate the effects of overarching political, social, economic, and ideological union differently. The situations in Bosnia and Chechnya bring to mind versions of unification that must fall outside of Christo's experience. The very notion of unification, of erasing difference for the greater good, has altered in meaning since 1971. The glaring problem is that Christo's ambition to create an international symbol out of a wrapped Reichstag was never re-calibrated to account for historical events. Christo has reduced the Reichstag to a kind of blind communicating vessel, while its actual future promises a far more interesting function: a seat of government where debate is encouraged, not flattened in the name of compatibility.

Looking up at the Reichstag is like practising archaeology, excavating the magnificent obsessions of those who passed this way before. But the pageant of billowing and silvery material gathered into ad hoc pleats with neat blue ropes cannot obscure the fact that the whole project clouds Berlin's atmosphere with the musty smell of the early 70s. The face of international politics has changed to such an extent that Christo's work now looks like a minor revival, brimming with nostalgia. Walking around the Reichstag, one feels that the project would be more at home in the cold war theme park currently being built in Florida by German investors. Their park will include a balloon ride over a re-creation of the Berlin Wall, allowing visitors to relive some of the (occasionally successful) escape attempts from East to West.

Is unification still something to aspire to? Christo suggests it is, but his understanding of unification is taken from the pages of cold war absolutism, while the experiences of people from the former eastern bloc have been all relativism. Consider the case of Viet Nam, another country to have witnessed a 'unification' that sounded the final notes of the cold war dirge. The words of Nguyen Cao Van, a member of Light, Hanoi's only heavy metal band, provide a particularly telling counterpoint to the unemployed ossi verticalists. 'The music is not about protesting the Government like in other countries,' he told the New York Times this summer. 'We are happy with the Government because now they let us sing.' If Van is happy, Christo must be beside himself.