Christo's Wrapped Reichstag

Bulgaria born conceptual artist Christo passed away a month ago, at the end of May. Upon this news I was searching a way to give place to his and Jeanne-Claude's wrapped Reichstag project to present his work and to find a way to bring what it meant for the Berlin residents to istanbulberlin.

The chapter is entitled "Christo’s Wrapped Reichstag" by Professor of Urban Performance Studies Nicolas Whybrow's book "Street Scenes: Brecht Benjamin ve Berlin" came to my rescue.

I am happy to share this excerpt with the author's consent and my Turkish translation.

Cover visual: Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-95, Fotoğraf: Wolfgang Volz © 1995 Christo

* The Reichstag is a historic edifice in Berlin, constructed to house the Imperial Diet (German: Reichstag) of the German Empire.

All our works are works of art. And they are totally useless.

Christo, from "Walking on Water"

Christo, Wrapped Reichstag (Project for West Berlin – “Der Deutsche Reichstag”) Collage 1972. Pencil, charcoal, pastel, wax crayon, fabric, staples, photographs, map and tape. 22 x 28″ (56 x 71 cm). Private collection. Photo: Archive © 1972 Christo

Christo’s Wrapped Reichstag

In the Hissens’ 1996 film, about Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Reichstag project, there is an archive scene early on which is shot in the snow-covered environs of the building.

It is the time of the Cold War, presumably during their first visit to Berlin in 1976, and the artists are being accompanied round the site of the Reichstag by Michael Cullen. The latter was an American living in Berlin, who takes the credit for first suggesting the project to the artist team in 1971. All of a sudden Cullen points to an S-Bahn commuter train trundling its way across the divide towards Friedrich Strasse station in the eastern sector. His excitement, not only at the everyday act of ‘transgression’ itself but also at being able to demonstrate to his guests this piece of Berlin exotica, is palpable. The film captures the kind of emotional response which, as testament to what was moving about an era, easily becomes erased once circumstances change.

Christo. Wrapped Reichstag (Project for Der Deutsche Reichstag – Berlin). Collage 1977. Pencil, fabric, twine, pastel, charcoal and wax crayon. 22 x 28″ (56 x 71 cm). Kunstmuseum Bonn, Germany Photo: Archive © 1977 Christo

Cullen’s animated state in the shadow of the sorry hulk of a déclassé Reichstag – about which he was to produce several historical studies – celebrates the ordinary-but-extraordinary occurrence of movement (ultimately of people) within grid-locked conditions. As such it seems to epitomise the principle of Christo’s project, astonishingly set in train nearly a quarter of a century before its actual realisation in 1995.

Where the wrapping of the whole Reichstag building in silvery polypropylene material began as the idea for a spectacular intervention into the situation of the Cold War, it reached completion in the transitional hiatus produced by the breaking of that particular stalemate. In one respect, then, Christo’s work remains fixed in its form.

** Jörg Daniel Hissen and Wolfram Hissen, are the co-directors ofDem Deutschen Volke

Christo. Wrapped Reichstag (Project for Berlin). Drawing 1979 in two parts. Pencil, charcoal, pastel, wax crayon and map 15 x 96″ and 42 x 96″ (38 x 244 cm and 106.6 x 244 cm). Photo: André Grossmann © 1979 Christo

For much of his practice is in fact related to the unexpected wrapping of familiar objects, large and small, anywhere in the world.

The Reichstag veiling in itself would have been broadly the same whether it had taken place in 1971 or 1995. What emerges as significant resides, first, at the interface between the formal functioning of the work; second, what it actually takes to bring it about; and, lastly, how it mobilises its viewing constituency in the contextual circumstances – historical, political, topographical – in which it ultimately occurs. Each one of these aspects is premised on generating movement.

Bureaucratic authorities are moved to negotiate, debate and legislate in what Christo refers to as the software stage (in Hissen/Hissen 1996). Spectators are moved to participate in the event physically – by being there and responding to it – and imaginatively, by speculating creatively over the broader significance of its impact. The formal act itself, finally, occurs as both a time and motion-based event. Lasting a fortnight and incorporating a three-phase process – the hardware stage – of becoming, then being, wrapped, as well as becoming unwrapped again, the estranged building also reproduces the remarkable sense of a breathing movement as the tied fabric envelops it and the wind gets under its skirts.

The machinery of ‘wrapping’ corresponds formally in fact to the Brechtian sense of a ‘staging of a veiling’ in which a familiar object or circumstance is not just made strange but shown to be made so.

Christo. Wrapped Reichstag (Project for Berlin). Scale model 1981 (Detail). Fabric, twine, wood and paint. 33 1/2 x 167 3/4 x 191 1/4″ (85 x 426 x 486 cm) Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 1981 Christo

“Wrapped as the Reichstag and unwrapped as the Bundestag.”

The machinery of ‘wrapping’ corresponds formally in fact to the Brechtian sense of a ‘staging of a veiling’ in which a familiar object or circumstance is not just made strange but shown to be made so. The phenomenon in question both is and is not itself, resembling the Brechtian actor’s demonstration of a character or situation and pointing to that character/situation’s capacity to ‘be otherwise’.

Here a ‘sick’ building – one that is ‘not quite itself’ – is bandaged (or mummified), undergoing a two-week period of healing and convalescence in which it is “wrapped as the Reichstag and unwrapped as the Bundestag” (Large 2002, 612).

Effectively it has had ‘the gift of life’ breathed back into it, a repackaged present (or swaddled rebirthing) to the city from the artists. What you witness at each individual stage and as a whole is the ritualised performance of democracy in action.

Christo. Wrapped Reichstag (Project for Berlin). Drawing 1995 in two parts. Pencil, pastel, charcoal, wax crayon, technical data, aerial map and fabric sample. 15 x 96″ and 42 x 96″ (38 x 244 cm and 106.6 x 244 cm). Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 1995 Christo

Without a stitch of the fabric even having been woven, the project had already produced intense discussion

In its software phase there was considerable right-wing opposition to Christo’s project, which viewed it variously as unsuitably experimental and irreverent, ambiguous in a way that would polarise rather than unify the populace, and unprecedented in other comparably respectable democracies (see Ladd 1998, 93-4 and Large 2002, 612). The important thing for the project, though, was that it provoked a parliamentary debate at all, one which resulted in a fairly narrow majority in favour. This was, on the one hand, over the writing of German history and, on the other, over the future of both the Reichstag as the refunctioned site of parliament and the nation as a whole: what would this act of wrapping suggest about the state of German unity and democracy if it were permitted to take place?

Also remarkable about Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 24-year struggle – as a crucial element in the functioning of the eventual piece itself – was the way its fluctuations had become indicative of the health of German-German relations. The birth of the ‘big idea’ just as a possibility in 1971 coincided with the tentative beginnings of East-West détente, as the more co-operative Brandt-Honecker years set in. Typically, though, the conservative parliamentary president Carstens was unwilling to run with the project in 1977 because the Reichstag was supposedly a symbol of German unity with which one should not tamper (in Baal-Teschuva 1995, 31). Choosing to view Christo’s proposed intervention as a trivialisation rather than facilitation of unification, then, the Reichstag is paradoxically preserved in this reactionary reading as the rigid embodiment of a past ideal of nationhood, one with which a reconnection will be made once the ‘aberration’ that is the GDR has run its course. Finally, at the project’s culmination in the 1990s, the parliamentary decision to take the risk and allow such a radical act to occur correlated with its own sense of being on the cusp of a new but undefined era of democratic unity.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-95. Photo: Roland Bauer © 1995 Christo

Something in which all German people would find themselves reflected

Whilst the materialisation of that unity remains a vexed question, there is no doubting that its possibility contributed to the extraordinary response to the Reichstag’s wrapping in the summer of 1995. The veiling, originally scheduled – naturally – to occur on 17th June, was delayed slightly, but that did not prevent an estimated five million visitors from attending in the fortnight of its duration. Effectively the site, surrounded by vast, ‘re-opened’ space, became the focal point for spontaneous gathering and festivities. The troubled colossus had been turned momentarily into a people’s fun palace, its gloomy threat spirited away, presaging its recasting as the locus of democracy.

Everybody could have their piece of it, a fact that was encapsulated literally by the distribution of millions of little pieces of the shiny fabric used. Now people could create their own personal installations by wrapping up their fragments of Wall chipped off six years earlier. As Willy Brandt had predicted in the early days of the project, it was something in which all German people would find themselves reflected.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-95. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 1995 Christo

Whilst Brandt doubtless meant what he said, and was warmly quoted by Jeanne-Claude in this spirit, there were certainly no idealistic sentiments on the part of the artists, no empty rhetoric claiming they were ‘doing it for the people’ (in Hissen/Hissen 1996). On the contrary, one of the more thought-provoking responses to the launch of the event was when the artists categorically stated at the press conference that they had done it only for themselves: to see if they could, to see what it would be like.Sitting alongside a visibly twitchy Rita Süssmuth, the parliamentary president at the time, who, as one of a minority of conservatives voting in favour of the project, had heroically championed the artists’ cause, it was a poignant moment. After all, this was a project that had really been premised on the exhaustive task of persuading politicians of its relevance to the broader populace. Importantly the artists added that if it attracted the interest of others, the public, then all the better, but that was not the starting point. It was a controversial declaration from an artist team that refuses any form of commercial or public sponsorship, that pays for everything itself, and therefore has arguably earned the right to make the kind of direct, independent-minded pronouncement which for a politician – or, indeed, a subsidised artist – might be professional suicide.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-95. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 1995 Christo

Where politicians purport to serve the people and spend a considerable part of their time ‘proving’ that this is what they are doing, Christo and Jeanne-Claude simply allow their actions to speak their own significance to the public. It is an act of galvanisation. An idea is set in train; how people react to that idea is ultimately what makes the work, but that is not something that can be predicted or determined in advance. The situation determines the work’s importance.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-95. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 1995 Christo

Works cited

Baal-Teshuva (1995) Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Der Reichstag und Urbane Projkete, München: Prestel Verlag.

Hissen, Jörg Daniel and Wolfram Hissen (dirs.) (1996) Dem Deutschen Volke – Verhüllter Reichstag (film), 1971-1995 (Germany/France).

Ladd, Brian (1998) The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Landscape, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Large, David Clay (2002) Berlin: a Modern History, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-95. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 1995 Christo

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