Concrete Utopias

Angel Angelov. Konkretni utopii. Proektite na Kristo (Concrete Utopias. The Projections of Christo). 119 pages, Sofia (Bulgaria): Open Society 1997.  

As evident from the title, in his book Angel Angelov argues that many of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects, along with the events surrounding them, constitute concrete utopias. The aesthetic discourse defining such utopias is intended not to criticize and reject the existing social reality, but to affirm it in alternative ways. In this way the aesthetic fulfills its utopian function of being an alternative of the social status quo. Not the artists alone, but whole segments of the society realize these utopias yet only for a limited period of time because otherwise they will cease being aesthetic.

These utopias define a space where everybody has the choice to set up their own entertainment, to become his or her own artifex minimus. Choosing to do so always is a voluntary decision-the artists do not impose it on anyone. By blurring the distinction between entertainers and entertained, utopias reach beyond the horizon of the culture of spectacle, unlike its critique, which-no matter how radical-remains within the same territory.

Angelov’s text is dense and lucid. He sets Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects within a panoramic view of twentieth-century art. Yet, Angelov’s viewpoint is not static. Perspectives change and there are moments when the reader is compelled to go back and reexamine the surface of the folds on the material wrapping Pont Neuf, because the artists have planned these folds carefully from the start and have designed a device that facilitates the rendition of the fold as envisioned by them (p. 99).

Angelov zooms in and out of the larger picture that he presents to us, while at the same time always keeping it in sharp focus. His book deserves a place in the shortest list of publications on Christo and Jeanne-Claude; but, unfortunately, it did not make it even to any of the longer ones. Who needs bibliographic entries in Bulgarian? (Cf., the bibliography in Burt Chernow’s Christo and Jeanne-Claude. A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press 2002, pp. 367-370)

Angelov is a Bulgarian literary scholar turned art-historian. After the fall of communism in the early 1990s he spent a couple of years in Halle, Germany, where as a visiting scholar at Martin Luther University he did research on the form of non finito in Italian Mannerism and Baroque. Of course, as Angelov puts it, what better example-mutantis mutandis-for a form of non finito than Christo’s Running Fence (p. 119).

Although a part of the original concept about this book, two chapters remained unwritten. These were to deal with the similarities between Baroque festivities and the media-oriented contemporary art respectively. They were also to deal with the theater of architecture in Giambatista Piranesi and Christo’s vision of space.

Being in Germany during the early 1990s gave Angelov a chance to follow closely the campaign in support of Christo’s project to wrap the Reichstag. Some of Angelov’s German colleagues who viewed Christo’s creations from a traditional modernist viewpoint saw them not as works of art, but rather as forms of spectacle.

In other words, Christo was degrading art to the level of public entertainment, thus abandoning the principles of the avant-garde. According to this point of view, Christo’s work remained valuable only to the extent to which it involved a transformation of form into an abstraction—wrapping a building ultimately results in creating an abstract version of its original form.

Angelov recognizes that this argument reflects the imperatives of the modern and avant-garde strategies for creating artifacts; these imperatives include a strong resentment of social conformity. What troubled the author was putting theory before the actual experience of a work of art and thus diminishing in meaning and significance the immediate responses to it. The ultimate goal of Angelov’s endeavor is stated in his book’s epigraph quoting Guilio Carlo Argan:

“I ask myself: can one achieve a certain basic methodology, valid for all investigations, being a methodology of the base, but not the vertex, following instead of preceding the actual experience.” (Intervista sulla Fabbrica dell’Arte. Roma and Bari 1982, p. 52)

In a manner of speaking the Argan citation is only the second and minor epigraph to Angelov’s book—the first, and main one, is the title itself. As the author acknowledges he is borrowing the term “concrete utopia” from Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), whose “Philosophy of Hope” includes the notion of “reale Utopie.”

Bloch’s “concrete utopia” has been defined as “a Marxist inheritance of the transcendentalist attempt to relate the present world to a beyond.” For Bloch this transcendence has nothing to do with otherworldly assumptions, “because the world itself contains immanent reference to a possible perfection.” (The partial citations come from W. Hudson, The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch. New York: St. Martin’s Press 1982, pp. 99-104.)

Thus from the start Angelov prepares the reader for a discussion that will reflect on philosophy, hope, social practice, art, and art theory. After encountering such substantial allusions to theory already on the title page, one starts to wonder: Will the author really keep his promise to subdue the imperatives of theory and develop an argument prioritizing the actual experience of the art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude?

Indeed he does so by dealing with the evidence documenting the public’s response and by reflecting on his own reactions. For instance Angelov examines a group of approximately thirty photographs made by Prof. Roland Pozner from Berlin, documenting the activities of the visitors to the wrapped Reichstag. The public not only enjoyed the finished work of art, but also used it as a stage set for various spontaneous performances.

Angelov argues that this was a form of symbiosis between The Wrapped Reichstag and the performing public. The wrapped building needs these performances, and yet they occur only because the Reichstag has been wrapped.

According to Angelov, Christo’s most significant contribution to contemporary culture is the stimulation of latent social energy by challenging emotions, convictions, attitudes, and senses. By being spaces of festive interaction, Christo’s art projects increase the social prominence of art in general (p. 58).

Apparently Angelov himself had strong responses to Christo’s art that he could not cancel out for the sake of avant-garde art theory. Here is an excerpt from the discussion of Christo’s Wall of Oil Drums on the Rue Visconti, Paris, June 27, 1962:

“The aesthetic impact of the temporary wall built of empty oil barrels is so strong that even today, after decades have passed, just by looking at thephotographs and the poster, I feel avenged for the years of communist lawlessness, stupidity and isolation from the world. The aesthetic impact of the temporary wall exposes the political lie justifying the construction of the real ‘Iron Wall'” (p. 21).

Angelov’s book is comprehensive without being descriptive. The author does not make his task to touch upon every single project realized by the Christoes. He also avoids the commonly used explanatory chapter titles referring directly to oil drums, wrapped objects, windows and store fronts, early outdoor projects, and large-scale outdoor projects. Instead, Angelov offers his readers a vision based on the examination of the relations between the artist, the public, the work of art, and the meaning. The book contains three chapters throughout which the general chronological progression is consistent:

1. After the Épatant and before the integration of the Public (pp.5-33);

2. Growth and Change: The Projections of Christo, 1968-1972 (pp. 34-66);

3. Artifact, Work of Art, Aesthetic Discourse (pp. 67-108).

After these three chapters come an excursus entitled “Participation in the Artifact, Transforming it into a Work of Art” (pp. 109-115) and at the end-some closing remarks by the author (pp. 116-119).

As might be expected, early in the book’s discussion one finds references to Man Ray’s The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse from 1920, Henry Moore’s Crowd Looking at a Tied-Up Object from 1942, and-of course-the works of Nouveau realism.

Angelov sets out the main theme of his argument by reflecting on the role of avant-garde art in replacing the century-old dilemma of distinguishing “good art” from “bad art,” with épatant gestures testing the public by posing the question “Is this art or is it not?” When you say “Yes” you become one of the elect; if you say “No” you enlist yourself among the philistines. Not answering this question is not an option. Even if you simply turn your back and walk away, you will be stating a choice and that choice inevitably enlists you among the uncultured.

Christo’s early works still reflect certain traits of avant-garde thinking, but starting from the 1970s the emphasis shifts. The collective efforts of the many participants working on the projects, all pursuing their common yet highly unusual goals, comes with a new set of questions: “What am I doing? What am I a part of? What is the meaning of this? What is art?” According to Angelov, the relevant response to these questions is found not in the analytical reflection, but rather in the collective experience providing the simple yet convincing answer: “It is this participation of mine, this experience itself that constitutes art” (p. 94).

Christo and Jeanne-Claude invent the rules for building their concrete utopias—these are the artists’ directions for carrying out their projects. Before contemplating the finished work of art, the public views and debates the guidelines for realizing that particular project.

Over the years, this public has been quite varied. To date, it includes collectively the magistrates of the city of Rome and the state governments of Florida and Kansas, the mayor of Paris (France’s current president), the people living in the Japanese countryside, the members of the German Parliament, and California farmers.

A section in the second chapter of Angelov’s book features the subtitle “The Debate” and has as its point of departure the opinion that for the art of the Christoes-as in contemporary art in general. What is more relevant than acceptance is the collision of different opinions.

Making the discussion a component of the work of art is the artists’ way of conceptualizing the awareness that aesthetic notions are socially defined. The debate does not overwhelm the significance of the visual and physical experience of the actual finished project. In fact, the very existence of this debate substantiates the insertion of the work of art into the public sphere.

Reflecting further on the way in which the debate contributes to forming the identity of Christo’s projects, Angelov cites an instance where the total lack of discussion is the issue. In December of 1963 the artist wrapped a statue of Venus in the park of Villa Borghese in Rome. The statue remained veiled for four months, yet it would appear that neither the park maintenance people nor the visitors recognized that the veiled statue was intended to be an artistic gesture; instead they must have thought that this sculpture was being prepared for restoration.

Regardless of the potentials of its form, the wrapped Venus—because it remained unnoticed—could not accomplish fully its intended social and aesthetic role. (Viewed retrospectively, this work stands out as the counterpoint of the wrapping of real women, one of Christo’s projects from 1962.)

For every individual project Christo and Jeanne-Claude develop, an entirely new set of rules—and thus the general concept of art—tends to dissolve into the concrete work of art. As a result every single project embodies an entire concept of art, and accordingly each new project defines a new concept. From the public’s perspective the aim here is not to understand the work of art—the notion of the work of art’s meaning has long lost its importance.

The real challenge is to recognize that these projects are art. Furthermore, this recognition is to occur before the actual project materializes. Before allowing the Christoes to carry out their plans, the people living in the Japanese countryside or the magistrates of Paris would have to decide that what they are about to allow happen is in fact art. The criteria shaping this evaluation are primarily ethical and historical since the process of decision-making precedes the actual aesthetic experience, occurring only after the realization of the project.

Legitimizing a new vision about art cannot be a rejection of the one that existed before because of the clear understanding that there is no longer such a thing as a preconceived definition of art. Art is the addition of yet another point of view to the many already in existence.

The difference with regard to modern art is the concurrent validity of many different aesthetic discourses, each one offering its own notion of art. Instead of the transgression of established norms, the new point of departure is the lack of any recognized boundaries. At the same time this is in sharp contrast to the mindset of the avant-garde, which rejects every tradition including the possibility of its own.

The projects of Christo and Jeanne-Claude involving the wrapping of Pont Neuf and the Reichstag not only take place in the centers of major world cities but also enter the realm of national history and confront notions of national identity. Angelov contemplates this issue in the last chapter of his book in a section subtitled, “A Safe Reflection” (pp. 67-74).

The Berlin project of Christo and Jeanne-Claude creates the conditions for considering the questions: “Does the Reichstag’s history concern me? In what way does it do so? What if I am a non-German living in Germany?” A similar set of questions would apply to the wrapping of Pont Neuf, which took place in 1985.

Facing these questions is not the result of an artistic dictate. The artists only create the conditions that would enable such reflection. You can be a part of the experience whether you come up with answers or not. You can just enjoy the play of light on the folds of the material or contemplate the newly achieved abstract character of the building’s form, or you can simply pass by it while walking through this public space. This shows that although Christo’s projects may appear avant-garde in terms of their form, they are not so with regard to their social function since there is no intention to separate the public into “the elite” and its opposite.

The debate surrounding such projects and the resulting knowledge of history are as serious as they can possible be. Yet even more important is the fact that they are “safe,” insists Angelov. Indeed, they do not feed the fire of national zeal. The point of participating or following these debates is not in reaching an agreement, not even in learning historical facts, but in providing the opportunity to relate to general, abstract questions in a highly personal way, and to gain a clear awareness of the dramatic and confused nature of any national history.

The ultimate outcome of the artistic endeavor is neither the rejection nor the revalidation of already established positions, but rather their careful delineation and contemplation. Apparently what connects us is not that we all are-or should be-French or German, but that we as individuals have our personal ways of associating ourselves with a certain national identity, or perhaps dissociating ourselves from one.

In Bulgaria Concrete Utopias is the first book-length publication on the art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. A book like this could not have been published in that country before the political changes of 1989. There is an angst that filters through Angelov’s text, one that rages quietly against the conditions that made impossible—among many other things—the uninterrupted tradition of avant-garde art and its open discussion. It is noteworthy how the author intellectualizes this sentiment by carefully picking up the pieces of evidence proving that there was indeed a certain continuity in terms of both theoretical reflection and artistic practice.

This continuity is revealed in the writing of some Bulgarian intellectuals, which Angelov very confidently sets into the larger body of texts on avant-garde and contemporary art. Naturally, Angelov’s discussion touches upon the question about non-traditional art projects carried out in Bulgaria—of course, there were very few of them before the fall of communism and many more after that. Nevertheless, the newly acquired freedom to carry out such art projects apparently could not guarantee their success (pp. 51-52, 80-83).

The need to reaffirm a sense of continuity of tradition may be a personal projection of Angelov himself. He would be the first one to admit that a good interpretation explains first of all the interpreter himself. Angelov succeeds in transforming his own projections into vehicles that help the reader relate to the vision of Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

By perceiving their projects as forms of concrete utopia the author of this book confirms the place these two artists hold within a long-standing intellectual tradition. This is Angelov’s way of conceptualizing Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s determination to employ the powers of the intellect and of all senses in comprehending and bringing to a good result people’s involvement with one another, with nature, with the past, and with art.