I haven’t heard of the latest installation by Christo in Germany, until one of my acquaintances told me about it. In december 2013, Luca happened to be in Oberhausen. I still don’t know why he was there, because I’ve never heard of anybody choosing to be on vacation in the Ruhr Area. Anyway, I thought it could be interesting enough to share his impressions of Christo’s work, since the mere location was impressive enough for me. Maybe, the site is the reason why Christo himself came back to Oberhausen after 14 years from his first creation specifically conceived for the Gasometer.
The gas holder in Oberhausen is a huge architecture. One of those structures that Bernd and Hilla Becher had been photographing throughout their career, in the ongoing effort to grasp and somehow decipher an aesthetic order for the industrial reality, once its imposed landmark was already a matter of fact. In its own genre, the Gasometer itself was a cutting-edge innovation: in the Thirties, it was the largest gas holder of all Europe.
Even in the age of skyscrapers, I think it’s still possible to feel the anomaly of its scale: the Gasometer doesn’t employ many artifices to make a human at ease with its mass; no mirroring windows to mix it up into the skyline; no openings or projections to enliven its volume, so that people are left without reference points of any sort. For its lacks of elements based on a human-scale, the Gasometer is precisely what men revere and fear the most at the same time: the coarse machine they can built and the moment after they loose control of.
Less than a century after its construction, the Gasometer is a useless structure. You can’t ignore it, it’s a big part of your everyday horizon, still there isn’t any more reason for its presence. It is already a hollow of our past but, contrary to monuments, it has never meant to represent anything.
Christo and his partner Jeanne-Claude have always conceived their works in relation to the usual perception of an environment: their interventions aim to alter the status quo of a monument or landmark – along with its whereabouts – in order to suggest the chance of an alternative. It’s a process as ritual as the cultural object upon which it is deployed, but that doesn’t mean it is ineffective. Site-specific art usually makes you rethink your own cultural believes, by displacing first your perception habits. Once the artist place you in a slighter different place, you’ll react to the novelty.
In the case of Christo’s works, they put the public in front of a simple question: what if our conventional world suddenly changed? His artworks either enhance the presence of a single, low-profile element, or they delete one relevant monument under endless PVC blankets. As for the Gasometer, Christo exploited both schemes in two different interventions.
In 90s, along with Jeanne-Claude, he built a gigantic barrier of colored barrels that arouse public consciousness of the gas holder by mimicking his own original function, that of a grand-scale container, and the understimated consequence of its presence. Have you ever thought similar architectures are an obstacle? Because they act like a barrier by gaining your attention, their awful dimensions block your view: they steal your visual possession of the environment.
Thanks to the bright palette of The Wall, Christo and Jeanne hinted to a creative, playful reuse of these disposed industrial tools, even when they are immense. This is precisely what happened to the Gasometer last year, when Christo transmuted the Gasometer’s interiors: people enjoyed it, perhaps for the first time ever. Once a tough architecture, it had become a hymn to the power of light, in every sense and perceivable hue.
No more boundaries or limits to the free enjoyment of your space. That is, whatever spot your body can reach or perceive. For a precious time, Christo had turned upside down the fundamental quality of the Gasometer, that no longer can’t contain such an endless play of shadows and lights. Luca told me it resembled a modern cathedral with its dazzling, white interiors and a peculiar echo back.
People wondered how tall the architecture was, while they were resting on comfy cushions: the Gasometer no longer intimidated them. As long as you are fully related to the environment, you’ll know your place.