“To Engage Their Bodies Entirely”
Christo on His Legendary Project The Umbrellas

It was the only project by Christo und Jeanne-Claude that extended across both hemispheres of the earth and one of their most spectacular interventions: For “The Umbrellas,” a forest of giant umbrellas opened in both Ibaraki, Japan, and southern California on October 9, 1991. An exhibition at Art Tower Mito commemorated the 25th anniversary of the intervention. For the opening of the show, Christo went to Japan and gave a lecture at Tokyo’s Hara Museum sponsored by Deutsche Bank. In an interview with Daryl Wee, the artist talks about the genesis of “The Umbrellas” and why he doesn’t own a computer.
Christo doesn’t make any compromises. He recently called off his project Over the River although he had worked on it since 1997, initially with his late wife Jeanne-Claude. In addition, more than 15 million dollars had been invested in the undertaking. The artist planned, spread out over a 60-kilometer stretch, to cover a about 10 kilometers of the Arkansas River with pieces of fabric. But this part of the river belongs to the USA, and so President Trump is the current “owner” of the land. Christo would rather refrain from realizing Over the River than give Trump the opportunity to embellish himself with the work.

In 1991, the political situation looked better, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude realized their most ambitious project. For The Umbrellas, they put up huge umbrellas in the countryside in Sonoma County and Marin County, California, and Ibaraki prefecture in Japan – 1,760 yellow umbrellas in the mountains of California and 1,340 blue umbrellas in the rice fields of Ibaraki. The poetic action was a smashing success with the public: A total of 500,000 visitors came in Japan, and 2 million in the USA.
Darryl Wee: You have a longstanding relationship with Japan that pre-dates “The Umbrellas” (1984-91): in 1982, you had a solo exhibition at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art where we are now.

Christo: I’ve known Toshio Hara for a long time — in fact, the first Mrs. Hara was also very much involved with the negotiations and interpretation required to convince the 459 rice farmers in Ibaraki of our project.
 In 1969, I met the late critic and curator Yusuke Nakahara, who was organizing the first Tokyo BiennaleBetween Man and Matter, in 1970. He invited me to make something, and so I told him that I wanted to do something simultaneously in two countries. There was a chance to do an outdoor installation in two parks: Ueno Park in Tokyo, and Sonsbeek Park in Amsterdam. We never got the permission for it, however. I remember the Japanese government telling us that he was concerned that children who walked over the wrapped walkways would fall down.
Although we failed to get permission for the wrapped walkways in both Ueno Park and Sonsbeek Park, I was eager to do the project anyway. In 1975-6, I tried to do it in St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin, but failed to get the permission there as well. Finally, the project known as Wrapped Walk Ways happened in Jacob L. Loose Memorial Park, Kansas City, in 1978.

“The Umbrellas” is the only project that took place on two continents. How did the idea to work in Japan and the US simultaneously come about?

The Umbrellas was designed to highlight the similarities and differences between the two richest countries in the world at the time, Japan and the United States. In a way, the process of getting the necessary permission reflected this. In Japan, we had to negotiate with 459 rice farmers in Ibaraki Prefecture, while in California we had only 25 cowboy ranchers to deal with.
In California, we had tremendous problems getting permission from the ranchers. In Japan, although we had many more people to convince, it wasn’t complicated. In contrast, we had a very difficult time persuading the government of Ibaraki and central government bodies in Tokyo to approve our project, but a much easier time with the state of California and federal government.
The other difficulty we faced was recruiting workers. For all our projects, we need non-skilled workers, paid above minimum wage — construction workers, carpenters, people involved in preparing the anchors of the umbrellas, for instance. Recruiting these workers was extremely difficult, as this was before the time of the internet. We had to go to the various colleges in southern California, colleges here in Japan, and talk to the young people, often after class.
I vividly remember giving a lecture at UCLA about The Umbrellas, and the first questions the American audience asked was, how much did it cost, and who paid for it? At a similar talk I gave at the University of Tokyo, however, the first question the Japanese asked me was: why yellow, and why blue? These are simple things, but they really reflect different sensibilities in society, and the lives people lead.

How did you choose the specific locations where the umbrellas were installed?

We chose the western part of the US, because it’s tilted towards the Pacific Rim — not the eastern US, which faces Europe. The landscape in the part of southern California that we chose, burned by the sun, is dramatically different from the wet landscape in Japan. These were all aesthetic decisions.
We also wanted the project to be accessible to everyone. We scouted both California and Japan intensively for sites, but quickly understood that each site would have to be near a bigger city. In Japan, the location was actually closer to Narita International Airport than Tokyo, so that visitors could drive directly from Narita to the project. And the same thing with California — the project was less than 100km from Los Angeles International Airport. So you see, we tried to organize the movement, visibility, construction, and accessibility — all as part of designing the project.

Why the umbrella motif?

Why umbrellas? It’s not because of any symbolism, or because the Japanese like umbrellas (laughs). They were designed to highlight the similarities and differences between the physical spaces in the US and Japan. California and Japan are almost equal in terms of surface area, but the Japanese only inhabit 10% of the surface of their land: the rest is made up of volcanic mountains and forests, where humans cannot live. In California, on the other hand, people live in a horizontal fashion, spread throughout the entire state.
And wherever humans live, they build their habitat. So the first idea, actually, was to build houses, temporary of course, but it was too much work. Houses were too complicated. Then we thought, how about tents, like the ones that nomadic tribes live in? But we found that they were too enclosed. So we decided to build roofs without walls — two-storey-tall umbrellas with roofs like a house, that people can go under.
Along the way, we asked a professor to research the origin of umbrellas. And what he found was that umbrellas were invented not in China, or Japan, but Mesopotamia, the first urban civilization in the world, over 7000 years ago.

How did each location, in California and Ibaraki, influence the installation of the umbrellas?

In Ibaraki, they were installed in an intimate way, because of the forests and vegetation. We looked for valleys that had lower roads and upper roads, so that you could view them from different heights. In Ibaraki, north of Mito, you had the mountains and river, and many secondary roads. In California, the umbrellas were installed around Interstate 5, going to Sacramento. You could only see them at the top of the mountain extending in all directions far away, in a vast open space, from Interstate 5.

What were some of the unique specifications that you devised for the umbrellas?

Working together with Nippon Steel in Japan, we installed springs near the peak of the umbrella that pushed the fabric so that it made a straight line all the way to the top, rather than having a hat-like contour at the top of most umbrellas.
Another innovation, devised by an American company that fabricated spinnakers for sailing yachts competing in America’s Cup, involved attaching the fabric for the umbrella directly to the mast with what is called a “sail turner.” It was literally sewn onto the ribs of the umbrellas, instead of using little ropes, so that the fabric would be continuous.  

Were there any thorny issues you had to deal with in fabricating the umbrellas?

I still remember vividly that the Japanese government had published a booklet of something like 120 or 130 pages specifying regulations for foreigners who wanted to build something in Japan. Wood, steel, cement — all these materials were permitted, but not aluminum. You see, after the war, Japan spent a huge amount of money to produce aluminum but they couldn’t, because they had no oil. So they were against using any aluminum structures in construction in Japan.
Instead, they proposed to do it in steel! Can you imagine? One umbrella would have weighed 6 tons! But using aluminum, 500kg, maybe even less. And we tried to convince them to use it, with the aid of special studies done by the government, that we paid for.

With all your projects, which comes first: the idea, or the target location?

Some of our projects are designed for a specific site — The Gates in Central Park, for instance, or the Reichstag or Pont Neuf. But others begin with a concept, like the wrapped coast in Australia. We did the drawings and studies first, and initially wanted to do it on the West Coast of the US, but never got the permission. Finally, our friend and collector John Kaldor helped to facilitate it on the coast near Sydney. And it’s the same thing with Valley Curtain in Colorado, or Over the River, also in Colorado. Even the Floating Piers, which were on view in the early summer of 2016, were originally designed for the Rio de la Plata in Argentina in 1970.
All our projects are difficult, but they’re not impossible. They are not wonders. You need clever engineers, but it’s not complicated. The project develops its own energy through making the work. But the most difficult part is getting the permission to go ahead with it.

On your website, one can see that each of your projects consists of a so-called “software” and “hardware” period. What do you mean by that?

Basically, we want each project to develop its identity through the permitting process. We discover what each one is as we make it. All of them have two distinct periods. The period in which the project doesn’t exist —it might be 26 years for the Gates, 24 years for the Reichstag — what we call the “software” period. And during this time, the government agencies we negotiate with produce a huge amount of writing. What gratification for an artist to have so much writing on a work on art that does not exist! The software period builds up expectations of the work, and develops the groups of people necessary to realize it.
And then, when we finally get the permission, we go into the hardware period, which involves the physical dimension of the work. And this entire journey, all together, is the work of art. The duration that the project is open to the public, of 14 days or 16 days, is not where the work exists. But at the same time, there is a great amount of energy created when the project is realized — so much dynamism — when you are confronted with something that took so many years to come into being.

As you point out, some projects take years and years before the “right” site comes along, and permission is finally obtained. But what about those unrealized projects that never see the light of day?

Over some 50 years, we have a total of 23 realized projects, and 36 unrealized ones. Out of these 36, some were refused, and we also find that we don’t want to do them anymore. For others, we persisted, because we still wanted to do it. The Floating Piers, for example, was originally first conceived in 1970 for the Rio de la Plata in Argentina. Then we tried to do it on Odaiba island in Tokyo Bay in 1996-7, but didn’t get the permission — fortunately, as it turns out, because the site in Italy was much better! (laughs)
In other cases, however, we refuse to do a project because the passion for it is no longer there. In Barcelona, we tried to do a project in 1975 called the Wrapped Monument of Christopher Columbus, where we proposed to wrap this huge monument built when Columbus left Barcelona to discover America. We started negotiating with the mayor at the time, and two years later, he was assassinated, but not by us. 3 or 4 years later, there was a new mayor who also said no, and he was almost assassinated, but not by us.
Then in 1984, just before the Pont Neuf project, we received a telegram from the new Mayor Pasqual Maragall, who later helped bring the Olympics there, asking us to come to Barcelona, where he would grant us all the permissions we needed. But we didn’t want to do it anymore.
If we lose the desire and pleasure to do a certain project, why should we do it? You know, we have a pile of letters from all kinds of mayors and presidents, but it doesn’t mean anything. Each project is very personal, and we never do the same thing twice.
Most art today is pure illustration: it’s not about real space, real wetness, real wind. Our projects, on the other hand, deal with reality, and real politics. I am always amused today whenever I see art that is only about things.
Me, I don’t know how to open a computer, or drive a car. I live in an old building, have no stool in my studio, stand 6-8 hours a day to work, in a building with no elevator. I enjoy walking. I enjoy the physicality of the outdoor world, but also the indoor world as well, all these dynamics. If you don’t have all that pleasure, it’s hard to be related to these projects. And it’s the same thing with the people who come to my projects — they have an incredible desire to feel these physical things, and to engage their bodies entirely.