Earlier this month, the Louvre’s glass Pyramid celebrated its 30th birthday. To mark the occasion, trendy artist JR was called to create his largest collage to date. This very photogenic installation which was composed of 2,000 stickers, quickly suffered from criticisms coming at it from every front. Between its lifespan that could be counted in hours (because of an underestimation of the effect of heat and the footsteps of visitors), its use of 400 unpaid workers and its overall unsustainability, the impact of the installation was greatly diminished, and one could ask how necessary and useful it really was. It then came as a surprise when, only a couple of days following the fiasco, it was announced that controversial Bulgarian artist Christo would be giving the Arc de Triomphe a new temporary look, by wrapping it up in silver fabric. A new installation that is sure not to leave Paris indifferent.
Christo has made himself – and his late wife and partner Jeanne-Claude – famous by doing such big scale and temporary contemporary and colourful installations all around the world. Their approach, always on the edge of land art, consists of “revealing by hiding”. Doing ephemeral art pieces on landscapes or monuments made the couple as famous as controversial. Their projects’ successes vary, from the Valley Curtain project (which, 28 months in the making, had to be taken down 28 hours later due to high winds in the area) to the Surrounded Islands in Miami (which boosted tourism and even cleared the area of 40 tons of garbage in preparation to its installation). Furthermore, Christo knows about wrapping up Parisian landmarks and the backlash it generates, as he wrapped up the Pont Neuf in 1985. The oldest bridge in Paris was removed from all its history and culture in this installation, which took 10 years to be approved. While some Parisians and political figures saw it as a pointless and disrespectful art piece, wrapping up the Pont Neuf was mostly seen as a successful move, attracting 3 million visitors.
Therefore, the artist already has a strong connection with the City of Light, where he worked from 1958 to 1964. With an exhibition dedicated to the couple planned in the Centre Pompidou next year, it was announced a resurgence of their 1962 project of wrapping up the Arc de Triomphe. Thanks to 25,000 square meters of recyclable polypropylene fabric in silvery blue, and 7,000 meters of red rope, the artist aims to give a new look to the famous monument. The project will not disturb the inside of the arch and the homage to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and will be opened next year from April 6 through 19. All founded through the benefits the artist will make through the sale of original drawings, prints and goodies, it is said not cost the taxpayer anything. 60 years in the making, this project’s announcement sparked debate between the public and art enthusiasts.
Parisians are proud of their classic masterpieces, and they should be. The Arc de Triomphe, with its monumentality, location and history, is widely considered a wonderful landmark. And the public doesn’t like what they perceive as an artist’s ego being displayed against their will onto a landmark. The project has been received quite unsuccessfully, most people simply saying “at least it’s only for 2 weeks and for free”. Other critics are concerned over the implementation of the project, as the Arc de Triomphe is located on a major road axis and the construction will surely affect the already poor traffic caused by pedestrianisation. While funded by Christo, the critics also see it as a waste of money and mostly as the dream of a proud and rich artist who wants to show off his “artistic vision” to a crowd, by removing a monument from them, as if his art was better. Parisians are also not blind to the contemporary capitalist aspect of the art piece. Some think it is mostly a giant billboard to make Christo’s value in the art market grow.
With the issue of the projection of the artist’s ego onto the monument come the current tense political situation in France. A lot of people currently opposes the French government and French president Emmanuel Macron is sometimes compared to Napoleon Bonaparte for his supposed imperial ambitions. Him supporting changes made to the Napoleonic monument seems to only accentuate this comparison. Indeed, Christo admitted that the French president helped to make his 1962 dream a reality. For the most critical, this project also exemplifies as well the disdain for the poorest and a victory of the “bobos parisiens” who would rather see big art pieces temporarily shown off to tourists than helping the tougher Parisian neighbourhoods. The Arc de Triomphe also earlier this year became a symbol of the Yellow Vest movement through the degradations done to the monument following acts of protests against the political system. As such, some read the project as an armour for the Parisian monument, a vision supported by the hand-drawn illustrations material of the silver envelop, almost like the illustrations of a fantasy story.
However, where Christo’s project might shine is almost accidentally not in is installation, but in its removal. Indeed, in one of his lecture, writer and publisher James Bridle laughs about the fact that nobody ever pointed out the smell of books before e-books started threatening their existence. Suddenly one can become nostalgic for a quality he never really noticed before. The benefits of Christo’s work could paradoxically be in its absence. The debates such an installation creates are always beneficial to reflect on art, architecture and everyday life. It was done in Versailles by Jeff Koons, in Carcassonne’s Castle by Felice Varini, and now by Christo on the Arc de Triomphe. Therefore, from the removal of history, presence, grandeur, symbolism and context of the wrapping up of the arch emerges discussions on the history, presence, grandeur, symbolism and context of the one thing it is trying to make disappear. Making people realise how precious our historical landmarks are might not be Christo’s intention, but it is the ingenuity of his installation, even if it doesn’t get build.