Christo's Wrapping Swathes Reichstag in Dispute

The political firestorm and public dialogue are part of what the Bulgarian-born artist strives for in his art

The Reichstag. No other building so succinctly sums up Germany's tumultuous 20th-century history. It's a site that's often been swaddled in dispute and stifled by repression.

That's why controversial conceptual artist Christo is wrapping it. The Bulgarian-born showman says he was drawn to the once-and-future German parliament building because it stands at the confluence of 20th-century European history. Covering it with about 1 million square feet of silvery fabric is perhaps his way of offering a salutation to a new era.

"I'm a product of the cold war," Christo, who fled Bulgaria to the United States in the 1950s, told the German newsmagazine Focus. "I have a vivid interest in East-West relations. The only place these two worlds come together in an artistic and architectural sense is at the German Reichstag."

At a news conference June 19, Christo was much less profound about his purpose. But in his own flippant way, he credited the Reichstag as symbolizing his own personal salvation.

"If there had been no cold war, I'd probably still be buried in a small town in Bulgaria," he said. "If I was born in Nebraska, the Reichstag would probably have no meaning for me."

Completed in 1894, the Reichstag, or parliament building, embodied Germany's stillborn attempt to emerge from a monarchy into a viable democracy during the first-half of this century. At first the legislature acted in essentially an advisory capacity to the German Kaiser. And later, during the post-World War I era of the Weimar Republic, the parliament was so riven by internecine rivalries as to be totally ineffectual.

The burning of the building in 1933, under suspicious circumstances, paved the way for Hitler's totalitarian nightmare. Bombed during World War II, the building's capture by the Red Army in 1945 was a harbinger of 40 years of Germany's division.

"It is certainly the place where the most interesting things crystallized in German history during this century," says Michael Cullen, a historian of the Reichstag who has advised Christo during all stages of the wrapping project.

Christo Javacheff was born in 1935 in Bulgaria, the son of a provincial merchant. World War II left him behind the Iron Curtain. He managed to emigrate West in the late 1950s, and he quickly hooked up with Jeanne-Claude de Guillebon, who was to become his wife and business manager. By the early '60s, he was wrapping away, including the swaddling of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 1969.

For Christo (who goes by his first name) and Jeanne-Claude, wrapping the Reichstag marks the realization of a 24-year dream. The project was first conceived in 1971, but was frustrated by the nation's division, as well as the opposition of the West German parliament, which thrice rejected the idea.

The major obstacle was overcome with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German reunification almost a year later. And last year, the plan finally won parliamentary approval, despite the continued opposition of Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

The costs are estimated at $7 million plus. Christo is trying to finance his project through the sale of books, posters, and sketches of the wrapped Reichstag, but he has already taken a big hit because of the drop in the value of the dollar against the deutsche mark.

The wrapping began June 18, with 90 professional climbers helping to spread the fabric, which has an aluminum coating. The work is expected to be completed by June 23. The silvery coat, tied down by blue rope, will stay in place until July 7. The fabric is designed to shimmer in the sun, while making for a haunting specter at night.

Christo is enigmatic about the meaning of the Reichstag wrapping, but he has made it clear that this project is unlike any other conceptual display he has hatched, including the ringing of Florida islands in pink plastic, and the wrapping of Paris's famous bridge, the Pont Neuf.

"This project is a lot more dramatic than previous ones. It has a high political dimension," Christo said in his Focus interview. "The wrapped Reichstag can act as a mirror before Germans and reflect their thoughts."

Far from contemplative, the atmosphere around the Reichstag these days is carnivalesque, giving the project an air of fin de siecle decadence. From morning until night, throngs of mostly Germans mill around the building. Some bring a picnic lunch, while others crowd around street musicians. Occasionally an eccentric will rant: "This is not an art work. It's kitsch work."

Some Germans don't like what they see, saying the Reichstag's dignity is being denigrated. A group of protesters gathered on June 17, the wrapping's opening day, to denounce Christo's activity. Protesters - mostly arch-conservative westerners, or former dissidents from the East - described the wrapping as "an affront to the victims of Stalinism."

June 17 is the anniversary of a 1953 anti-communist rebellion in East Germany that was crushed by Soviet tanks. The date, before reunification, was celebrated as National Unity Day in western Germany. In 1990, the country's national day shifted to Oct. 3, the date of reunification.

The protest underscored how many Germans are still wrestling with their country's history. Some of the same people leading the outcry against the Reichstag wrapping were among those who issued a manifesto that portrayed Germany's capitulation in World War II as a national tragedy that divided the nation. The majority of Germans view the surrender as a liberation from Nazi tyranny.

Wrapping the Reichstag for some is an extremely sensitive issue. But instead of being consumed with the past, those opposing the project should be cheered by the statement it makes about the country's future, says Mr. Cullen, the historian.

"The Reichstag was the site of the experiment that failed to import parliamentary democracy to Germany," he says. "But it is definitely an experiment worth taking up again.... And the wrapping gives a major push to the move of the capital from Bonn to Berlin. People are finally realizing the Reichstag will be the capital again."

After the wrapping comes off, the Reichstag will undergo a renovation, and a new glass dome will be added. Work is scheduled to be done by 1998 so that legislators can move from Bonn to Berlin by the end of the century.

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