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'Until the end of my life, I will do what I like to do': Christo on art and life

Christo passed away on Sunday at his home in New York. We caught up with the famous installation artist at the Toronto International Film Festival last year.

The famous installation artist passed away on Sunday at his home in New York

Artist Christo Vladimirov Javacheff walks on his monumental installation The Floating Piers, created with the late Jeanne-Claude. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images)

Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, who worked under the name Christo, was known for his massive public art installations.

With his partner, Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, who died in 2009, he famously created grand spectacles around the world, often in the form of wrapping huge landmarks in fabric — among them the Reichstag in Berlin, the Pont-Neuf in Paris and The Gates in New York City's Central Park. 

Christo passed away at his home in New York this past Sunday at the age of 84.

Last year we caught up with Christo at the Toronto International Film Festival, where they were screening the documentary Walking on Water. The film was about the process of designing, creating and installing Christo's 2016 work The Floating Piers, which comprised a series of floating walkways installed in Lake Iseo, Italy.

The three kilometres of pier were made from polythene cubes and wrapped in a bright gold fabric, allowing visitors to walk just above the surface of the water. 

Christo's installation titled The Floating Piers. The three kilometres of pier were made from polythene cubes and wrapped in a bright gold fabric, allowing visitors to walk just above the surface of the water.

As grand as the scale was for each of Christo and Jean-Claude's projects, they were always free, and always temporary. Christo was an artist who felt that, first and foremost, the purpose of art was in the creation, rather than the final product. 

His final project, L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, is still scheduled to appear in Paris this September, according to a statement issued by his office.

Below, Christo reflects on his career, the creative process and why a rejection is never the end. 

Both of your parents worked in textiles: is that the main reason you prefer working with fabric so much?

No, but the fabric is the principal material to translate the nomadic character of the project. The project is done by many many paths, but suddenly, the unfurling of the opening of the project happens in a matter of days or a few hours, and it's like a curtain call. To see the fragility of it, that the work will be gone, will not be any more. 

But also, look at the wrapping of the Reichstag. The people could walk around the Reichstag, many thousands of them walking around and touching the fabric. I don't see any of the people here touching the buildings in Toronto. This is the whole story, that the work is so essential and so related to the senses that it creates a special relation to the object. 

Aman stands at the top of remains of the Berlin Wall and looks at the wrapped Reichstag building, a project titled "Wrapped Reichstag" by American artist Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude. (Jan Bauer/Associated Press)

You've compared painting portraits to prostitution.

No, no, I will tell the story. It's like a writer who writes a detective story or a romance under a different name. When I did portraits, I used my family name. They escaped from a communist country in 1957. Alone I was a refugee walking through the woods. I escaped during the Hungarian revolution in Budapest.

I ran to the West, 21 years old, and of course I [studied in] Bulgarian art. I was gifted. I painted. I made my survival making portraits. And this is why through the years I chose my name, Christo. I was actually stateless for 17 years, and in 1964 we were like tourists in America, Jeanne-Claude and myself. She would like to say we were illegal aliens in New York City in Manhattan. 

Installations by Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Why do you think it's important that art is free and accessible to everybody — and that no one can actually own the art?

It is important that projects exist simply because artists like to have them. I escaped from an oppressive communist country, where we were being commanded what to do. Until the end of my life, I will do what I like to do. This is why we never do the same things again. We would be stupid to do another gate. We know how to do a gate. Or to do another floating pier. We know how to do that. Or wrap a parliament. We know how to do that.

We're working on a huge project in the Middle East now that will be the biggest most incredible building. No skyscraper, no bridge has ever been built like that. The engineers do not know how to do it, but they are trying to do it. All of that is an incredible creative process. No routine, extremely inspirational, and very full of the drama of real life. No make believe. That is the life I like to have.

In this May 1983 photo, environmental art titled "Surrounded Islands" by artist Christo was in the process of being installed in Miami, Fla. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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