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ART REVIEW : The Umbrellas of Christo : The Artist’s Extravagant Production Is Simply Recycled Impressionism

TIMES ART CRITIC

Fifteen years after creating an international ruckus by stringing some 24 miles of light-reflective fabric fence across the gorgeous rolling hills of Sonoma and Marin counties, the Bulgarian expatriate artist Christo has returned to California to execute another temporary extravaganza.

Or, at least, half an extravaganza. The event is taking place simultaneously in Japan, in rural farming country a little more than an hour’s drive north of Tokyo.

Based on the local half I’ve seen, I’d recommend saving the expense of last-minute plane fare to Asia. The project’s principal redeeming feature is that it reveals, more clearly than ever, why Christo’s art is so lame.

“The Umbrellas: Joint Project for Japan and U.S.A.” is the rather leadenly descriptive title of the new piece, which opened Wednesday after a 24-hour delay caused by a pesky typhoon off the coast of Japan. As with all his work since the 1960s, Christo’s “Umbrellas” explode the whimsical absurdity of a Dada gesture to gargantuan scale--namely, the scale of mass culture.

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In the hills and fields surrounding an 18-mile stretch of the Tejon Pass, about 60 miles north of Los Angeles along Interstate 5, the artist and a crew of several hundred assistants have erected 1,760 custom-made, bright yellow umbrellas, each nearly as tall as a two-story house.

Likewise, in the rice paddies of Japan’s Ibaraki Prefecture, an array of 1,340 blue umbrellas has also been erected. The bicontinental blossoming--$26 million to fabricate and seven years to orchestrate--will remain in place for three weeks, until Oct. 30.

As with all his mega-events, Christo’s art works on a capitalist model. In short, he floats “stock” (his preparatory drawings and collages) on the market, plows the income back into the “business” (the art event envisioned in the studies), whose “success” (global media attention) in turn raises the monetary value of the “stock.” This sets the stage for “business expansion” (the next, even grander art event).

It’s no wonder that Zurich’s Rothschild Bank AG is among his most prominent and avid collectors.

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Nor is it any wonder that Christo first gained notoriety as a “wrapper.” His earliest sculptures were ordinary objects--a stroller, three saplings from a nursery--wrapped with plastic and bound with rope. These soon expanded to Barnum-esque dimensions, including a chunk of the rocky coast of Australia, entire buildings (usually art museums) and the Pont Neuf spanning Paris’ River Seine. Art as an act of packaging is advanced as appropriate to modern consumerist culture.

The packaging of “The Umbrellas” has been done for mass media, its conceptual union of East and West providing a perfect sound bite: Art unites the economic capitals of the Pacific Rim.

Christo has said he wants spectators to compare and contrast--to muse on the relative similarity in size of the country of Japan and the State of California, to consider the radical difference in population densities (nearly twice as many Japanese per square mile as Americans), to notice the disparate geographic imperatives that have shaped land use in each locale, and so forth. He’s a sculptor, after all, and space is a sculptor’s medium.

However, none of this is actually witnessed or experienced out there on the I-5. What is experienced is simply a pleasant day in the country (traffic notwithstanding). And given the roughly 8,000 miles separating California and Japan--a distance that requires mass-media outlets like newspapers and TV to “complete” the art for most every viewer--it’s a day in media country, too.

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This turns out to be a key to understanding the triviality of Christo’s art. Remember “A Day in the Country,” the tellingly titled, landmark exhibition of French Impressionist painting held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1984? That show marked an important revision in our understanding of Impressionism, and of its role as more than an ostensibly neutral record of light-dappled landscapes.

Like them, Christo’s environment of “Umbrellas” creates a portable pastorale. A kind of walk-in Impressionism, his art scatters umbrellas in semi-rural areas a short drive from sprawling metropolitan centers--close enough to get to with a tank of gas, but far enough to make you feel you’ve momentarily left the urban and suburban rat race.

In Ibaraki Prefecture the umbrellas surely evoke Japanese parasols, and in Southern California they suggest beach or patio umbrellas. Yet, as they blossom across the gently sprawling landscape, try thinking “fields of flowers” instead--especially fields of bright California poppies, standing in for their French cousins. (The umbrellas might be big, but the scale of the landscape dwarfs them.) Even their yellow color matches the wildflowers currently blooming in the hills.

Think also of bourgeois mademoiselles in sun-drenched gardens seeking delicate shade beneath graceful parasols. In “The Umbrellas,” Christo merely re-enacts the immensely popular subject matter of Impressionist painting, especially Claude Monet’s, on the monumental scale those pictures have come to occupy in mass-culture consciousness.

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It would be hard to imagine two nations more obsessed with Impressionism as the symbol of authentic Modern art (and life) than Japan and the United States. In Ibaraki Prefecture and Southern California, Christo has created an Impressionist Amusement Park.

He’s exploited this imagery before, most obviously in the 1983 “Surrounded Islands” project, where floating pink “skirts” were made for islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay. The skirts transformed green islands into gargantuan lily pads, while Biscayne Bay became an enormous garden pond--Miami as Giverny.

These Mass-Media Monets fail as anything other than routine media spectacles because they simply feed on institutionalized experience. The modern corporate model is exploited, but it’s not illuminated in any meaningful way. His periodic mega-projects have become seasonal alterations of a standard repertoire of forms, like high fashion. (A friend appropriately described the fabric-draping of the Pont Neuf as “Christo couture for Paris.”) And the spectator is just another consumer of a given set of symbols, decoratively rearranged for the occasion.

Most depressing of all, the artist is reduced to the hapless role of general manager in culture’s sodden Department of Redundancy Department. Dedifferentiation is the nature of mass-culture experience, as artists as disparate as Jeff Koons and Mike Kelley have made plain. Accordingly, “The Umbrellas” are empty of transformative effect.

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There is no art, as Christo has claimed, to be found in the complex social interactions required to get an extravaganza such as this off the ground. Save for size, it’s just like any of the small but embattled processes anyone endures to get through the day. “The Umbrellas” simply signify the beleaguering of contemporary life.


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