Identity, gender and the performative in Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work

Essay, 2006

24 Pages, Grade: good



1. Introduction

2. Questions of Identity

3. Aspects of Gender

4. The performative in the art Christo and Jeanne Claude

5. Conclusion:


1. Introduction

The following considerations try to point out that Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work deals with concepts of identity, gender and the performative, ideas which inform a great deal of the art that has been produced since the 1960s. These aspects in the work of the two artists have generally been overlooked due perhaps to the giganticism of many of their projects realized since the end of the 1960s, like “Wrapped Coast” (1968/69, Australia), “Valley Curtain” (1970/72 USA), “Surrounded Islands” (1980-83 USA), “Pont Neuf Wrapped” (1975/85, France), “Wrapped Reichstag” (1971-1995 Germany), or “The Gates” (2005 USA).

If one tried to give an overview of the different interpretations which have been suggested so far with respect to Christo’s work in chronological order, one would encounter the French movement of Nouveau Réalisme, whose new realism, according to Pierre Restany, art critic and intellectual leader of the group, consisted of the presentation of corporeal reality in actual objects, rather than representations of them on canvas or in bronze (Bourdon 21). Although Christo has exhibited with the group, he never really was a Nouveau Réaliste, as he concealed the reality of objects and manipulated their function and identity.

In a more formalist approach Rosalind Krauss has tried to define Christo’s work as “sculpture in the expanded field”, in that he tried “to explore the possibilities of architecture plus not-architecture”, and by using the postmodernist technique of marking sites (Krauss 1979, 296). Indeed, Christo’s work is related to traditional genres of painting and sculpture, but he uses them in order to show that theses genres are insufficient or even obsolete in the contemporary world. That’s why one could say that at least in the case of Christo, Krauss failed to “look under the hood”, as she herself argued against art critics, who kept to the surface of works of art (Krauss 1999, 107).

For Werner Spies Christo’s art is a product and an expression of the industrial, democratic age; Christo uses high tech prodedures, a large number of co-workers and huge amounts of money to realize his projects. Another element is the political aspect: as they often need large amounts of public and private space, his work needs a maximum of participation and the consent of third parties, like owners and public authorities (Spies 1987, 16).[1] However, this interpretational aspect does not deal with the transformation of object and context, which is achieved in the wrappings, and also by installations like “Surrounded Islands” (Miami 1983) or “The Gates” (New York 2005).

Emma Barker on the other hand considers one of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s major works of the 1990s, “Wrapped Reichstag”, as an example of “art-as-spectacle”. Although it does not impose a particular meaning on its viewers, it does not prevent the promotion of consumption. It could therefore compromise the potential of art as a form of critical practice. (Barker 1999, 16/19). It could be argued however that Christo has made a contribution to save contemporary art from becoming simply a commodity. His way of producing art could even change not only the perception in the role of art, but it could also change the perception of the ordinary onlooker on the world he lives in and could open up his/her ability to accept critical practices. Christo’s works on their surface look inoffensive and even “spectacular” in the sense of Guy Debord, but they have a quiet revolutionary potential thanks to their Surrealist content.

The art critic David Bourdon comes close to an interpretation taking into account Dadaism and Surrealism, when he mentions Man Ray’s wrapped sewing machine of 1920 (“The Enigma”) and asks “why none of the Dadaists or Surrealists … pursued the implications of packaging, a subject that lends itself to all sorts of formal and psychological twists” (Bourdon 1970, 14).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Man Ray, The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, 1920; replica 1970 (Sewing machine, wood, fabric, card), 38 x 55 x 24 cm. Photo taken from Jennifer Mundy (ed.), Surrealism - desire unbound; Tate, London 2001, p. 196.

But Bourdon does not investigate in more depth the Surrealist connection in Christo’s work. At the time, when Bourdon wrote his account of Christo (at the end of the 1960s), there were no statements by Christo himself about his intentions. “I don’t define art; I make it”, he said (Chernow 113). All that could be found were some texts which Christo used almost as captions to some of his works shown at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan in 1963, like: “Packaging often ranks next to product in influence upon a buyer…” (Bourdon 18). This suggests that Christo at least at this moment of his career was stressing the aspect of his work which was related to the role of commodity in the consumer society. During the 1960s however, Christo followed the rule, applied by many other artists of his time, not to comment on his art or to hint at its conceptual roots.

Questions of identity, gender, and performance have not really been adressed in all these approaches mentioned above. But at least since 2002 there are statements by Christo himself (for instance in the “authorized” biography by Burt Chernow, 2002) which make clear that identity and gender have indeed been on his mind and that there also was quite early a link to Dada and Surrealism. In this respect it is certainly relevant that in 1963 Christo met Marcel Duchamp, who until 1968, the year of Duchamp’s death, remained a friend and supporter.[2]

Christo’s wrappings could be interpreted as Surrealist performances or gestures, the early wrapped objects as acts of concealing identity and gender; the later objects, especially the wrapped architectures, as an attempt to transform an environment dominated by male appearance. It could be argued that Christo uses the idea of the “formless”, as introduced by Georges Bataille and defined by Rosalind Krauss as one of the central elements of Surrealism. At the same time however the realm of politics is present from early on in Christo’s work (for instance: Iron Curtain, rue Visconti, 1962). Therefore the approach by Krauss should be complemented by a definition taking into account how artists deal with politics. An author like Laura Mulvey for instance concentrates on the question how visual pleasure reinforces the oppression of women. Christo’s wrappings could be interpreted as barriers to visual pleasure and therefore as a strategy to undermine masculine authority and against the fetishisation of the female body. His later works, the big installations, avoid making use of a directly feminine appeal on to the viewer. However, Christo’s main subject is political freedom as such (in contrast to communist totalitarianism in the former Soviet Union and Christo’s country of origin, Bulgaria). Questions of identity and gender therefore later seem secondary to Christo. But he is responding to them as his wife Jeanne-Claude very often appears simultaneously with him during the performances. At the beginning of the 1990s the couple decides to appear as co-authors of their works which are from then on signed “Christo and Jeanne-Claude”.


[1] This aspect is also underlined by Malcolm Andrews (Andrews 1999, 158): works like “Running Fence” transcend political and ownership boundaries; Honour and Fleming (2000, 767) have labeled Christo’s work as “Land Art”, a classification which the artists themselves reject; Christo himself (in the “Common Errors”, see christo’s webpage) would define it as “environmental art: “Environmental Artist: Yes – because they created many works in Cities – in Urban environments – and also in Rural Environments but NEVER in deserted places, and always sites already prepared and used by people, managed by human beings for human beings. Therefore they are not "Land Art" either.”

[2] See Chernow, 126/7, 174, 187. It remains an open question whether Christo was influenced by the philosophical and Surrealist discourses about art in France published in print during the 1950s and 1960s. His knowledge of the French language has always remained rather fragmentary (Chernow 140, 145). In 1958 his reading ability however had developed far beyond his attempts at conversation (Chernow 55).

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Identity, gender and the performative in Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work
The Open University  (Department of Art History)
Themes and issues in Contemporary Art History
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
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Christo and Jeanne-Claude, contemporary art, zeitgenössische Kunst, Kunstgeschichte
Quote paper
Joachim Stark (Author), 2006, Identity, gender and the performative in Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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