Is big better? Some issues around very large artworks.
© Werner Hammerstingl, 1998

Is big better? It's too easy to follow such a question with a clever remark about Queensland or Texas so I'll restrain myself and talk about Budhist cave sculpures in China and the pyramids in South America and Egypt instead.

Before I discuss the specifics of artworks, it may be worth pointing out that the monumental which has been a part of culture since ancient days has become gargantuan in scale during the 20th century. I'm talking about structures here which are not even terribly well known such as the Xiaolangdi dam in China, the 70 or so skyscrapers that the chinese have built in Pudong some of which have outmeasured western ikons such as the 110 year old Eiffel tower or the ageing Empire state, eclypsed by the Jin Mao building by 40 meters. Next to Jin Mao the tallest structure in the world (unless Grollo gets his way) is already underway, foundation pylons being driven 80 meters into the rivermud below. Not many people know about the immense tunnels driven vast undergroud distances purely for scientific research. Examples such as the Superconducting supercolliding project in Waxahachie Texas (now abandoned) which was going to measure 54 miles in diameter and which was quietly discontinued after 15 miles had been excavated. Or the finished tunnel at CERN (Conseil EuropŽen pour la reserche NuclŽaire), which is the largest finished scientific instrument on earth with it's capacity to whipp electrons and positrons some 11 200 times a second along it's 27 kilometer circumference underground atomic racetrack. Finally, in this context and company of examples one must mention the 20 Billion Hong Kong Airport project where big was inverted. An entire island was flattened to 6 meters above sea level by removing 10 tonnes of dirt every second for 31 months (347 million cubic meters of rock and sand in total). So now we have a feel for big.

When we stand in front of a very large painting, building or sculpture we are dwarved by it psychologically. We have a totally different relationship to a work that exceeds our own scale: we can not look with the same authority that we claim when we look at an object or artwork of small proportions which due to it's intimate scale surrenders to us.

We peer at the small and we are overtaken by the large. It excludes distractions from our field of vision. It engulf us.

The focus of this discussion is fairy broad and ranges from monumental sculpture in ancient Syria to contemporary environmental, earth and installation artworks which make use of large scale. I will discuss the political, religious and social implications of such works.

The history of monumental art dates back to the oldest human settlements and includes icons of worship and architectural constructions for political/social/religious purposes.

The monolythic form presents ideas of stability, permanence and resistance to change. perforations, extensions and protruberences have dynamic implications and motion is the enemy of the timeless and the eternal. This may explain why many of the ancient large scale works are so simple in form. Rather than imagine that the artisans of the time were unable to work towards greater detail and complexity, we might consider that their work was simple in form for another reason: the stark form offers contemplation beyond sidetracking detail.

Many contemporary artists are returning to such primitive motifs again in a search for art beyond the momentary fads of style and theory.

Perhaps because of the durability of the material itself, or because other materials were not the choice for large sculptures, what we can still witness today that may be described as monumental sculpure and dates back to the dawn of civilisation is invariably carved from stone. The softer sandstone of the Mesapotanian region has survived less well than the harder stoneworks such as Stonehenge which are found across Europe and England .

Apart from traces of decoration on standing stones and the "transplanted" art of Roman occupation, the history of sculpture in England is rooted in the Christian church. Monumental crosses of carved stone, similar to the Celtic crosses of Ireland, represent the earliest sculpture of Anglo-Saxon Christians. The tradition of relief carving attained its highest expression in the stonework of the Gothic cathedrals, such as that at Wells (c. 1225-40). The influences of Renaissance and Baroque sculpture on the Continent were slow to reach England. What borrowings there were prior to the 18th century remained ill-conceived and crudely executed. From the 1730s, however, the presence of first-rate foreign artists, together with the flowering of archaeology and the resulting accessibility of antique art, brought a new refinement to English sculpture. The Roman influence that precipitated Neoclassicism gave way in England to the Greek with the arrival of the "rescued" Parthenon sculptures, now known as the Elgin Marbles, in the early 1800s. While the Romantic movement of the 19th century, which assailed the academic restraint of Neoclassicism in all the arts, invested continental sculpture with an increasing subjectivity, as well as a broader range of subject matter, the sculptors of England pursued a more conservative path. Many free-standing public monuments--the descendants of sepulchral effigies--date from this period. Not until the 20th century did English sculptors break free of traditional bounds and attain a deeply personal mode of expression. The sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth both came from Yorkshire, and something of the quality of moorland stone can be seen in their work. Nearly a century after Moore's birth in 1898, his abstract reclining figures remained the dominant images of modern English sculpture.

Easter Island in the Pacific is remote and isolated and the site of the famous monuments depicted above. Among the monuments are some 300 stone platforms, some of which were used for burials and some of which supported the island's spectacular colossi. Work on the statues, which were carved from a soft volcanic stone, seems to have begun about AD 900. The first figures were relatively small, about 2 metres high; the largest examples are 12 metres high. The statues' heads and torsos are in an extremely rigid frontal style, with the slender arms and elongated hands carved down the sides and across the belly. Necks are barely indicated; the faces have deep-set eyes, long pointed noses, and massive chins. The statues originally had barrel-shaped topknots of red stone and eyes of white shell and black stone. The Easter Island tradition of statue carving came to an end by about 1600, probably as a result of a serious breakdown of the culture caused by internecine wars (deadly, destructive slaughter-extermination).

Pinyin YUNGANG, series of magnificent Chinese Buddhist cave temples, created in the 5th century AD (Six Dynasties period). They are located about 10 miles (16 km) west of the city of Ta-t'ung (Datong), near the northern border of Shansi province (and the Great Wall).

The caves are among the earliest remaining examples of the first major flowering of Buddhist art in China. A low ridge of soft sandstone was excavated to form about 20 major cave temples and many smaller niches and caves, stretching for over half a mile (about 1 km) from east to west. Some of the caves served merely as cell-like enclosures for colossal figures of the Buddha (up to about 45 feet [14 m] tall), while others contained chapels.

The earliest five temples were instituted by the head of the Buddhist church, a monk named T'an-yao, about 460; their construction was among the first acts of propitiation sponsored by the foreign T'o-pa, or Northern Wei, rulers (386-535) for their persecution of Buddhism during the period 446-452. The colossal Buddha images in each cave were equated with the first five emperors of the Northern Wei, thus emphasizing the political and economic role that the court imposed upon Buddhism.

The revival of monumental sculptures and architectural forms which include the Bavaria, the Eiffel tower, the Statue of Liberty and the various monolyths and arcs, bridges and towers are the legacy of the 19th century industrial age with it's new wealth and new engineering solutions to mechanical complecities and physical obstacles. The 19th century works of this nature are a lasting legacy to the optimism and confidence of the time.

Large paintings and photographs play a relatively small role in the overall context of large or monumental artworks and buildings. But their role and manifestations will be discussed in the lecture.

Environmental and earth art installations of monumental scale always tend to bring Christo to the forefront but there are other artists that should also be mentioned.

Robert Smithson for instance became famous for his monumental earthwork "Spiral Jetty" 1969.

Concerning Robert Smithson's work: Lawrence Alloway has defined the relation of site to nonsite in a way which helps us to see this reversibility. The nonsites, he says, constitute "a sculpture of absence": "The site is identified [initially, at the nonsite, in the gallery] by information supplied by the artist in the form of maps, photographs, analogical objects (bins and trays cued by the original lay of the land), rock samples and verbal captions. The nonsite, by this accumulation of references, acts as the signifier of the absent site." And yet, in a dialectical play that Smithson himself surely understood, in the experience of it, the nonsite is itself a site that redefines the original site as the nonsite.

[Henry M. Sayre, The Object of Performance (page 229)]

Wrapped Reichstag,1995 Christo

After a struggle spanning through the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, the wrapping of the REICHSTAG was completed on June 24th, 1995 by a work force of 90 professional climbers and 120 installation workers. The Reichstag remained wrapped for 14 days and all materials were recycled.

Ten companies in Germany started in September 1994 to manufacture all the various materials according to the specifications of the engineers. During the months of April, May and June 1995, iron workers installed the steel structures on the towers, the roof, the statues and the stone vases to allow the folds of fabric to cascade from the roof down to the ground.

For two weeks the Reichstag building changed into something completely different, an artwork that followed its own laws, its own associations and that had its own beauty.

The artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who have lived in New York with their son Cyril since 1964, are famous for their previous grand-scale urban and rural artworks, such as Running Fence in California (1972-76); Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Florida (1980-83); and The Umbrellas, Japan-USA (1984-91). After Michael Cullen, a Berlin historian, sent them a postcard in 1971 suggesting that they wrap the Reichstag, Christo and Jeanne-Claude worked for 24 years to seek permission from the German parliament.

On Sunday, June 25, 1995, the idea was finally realized. When the artwork was finished and the construction fence went down at 5 a.m., the northeast side of the wrapped monolith glistened in the morning sun like a glacier. People were already waiting to be among the first to actually touch the fabric. That Sunday alone, 600,000 visitors from all over the world came to pay homage to Christo, Jeanne-Claude and their art project.

Small private planes and helicopters flew above the Reichstag throughout the day. Visitors had paid the pilots to see the wrapped roof and inner courtyards as well. People brought blankets and picnics; music was playing everywhere and pantomimes were doing their shows. Whole families, including a one-week-old baby, had their pictures taken in front of the Wrapped Reichstag. Everyone was enthusiastic, cheerful! Many were involved in talks with the monitors and many questions were answered. "Cool," "fantastic," and "genial" were comments people made -- depending on their age -- about the gigantic, wrapped, dilapidated national building. At first sight, they could not believe their eyes. The first 250,000 out of 1,150,000 fabric samples were given to visitors as souvenirs and to discourage people from coming with knives or scissors to cut a trophy out of the artwork.

The Bonn government was so enthusiastic about the artwork that Christo and Jeanne-Claude were asked to extend the project. Since all of their art projects are temporary, this was not possible. The building was unwrapped again on July 7 as planned. "Temporary, because it challenges our notion of art to challenge the immortality of art. We make art not out of gold, silver or marble and think it would stay forever. Non-permanent art will be missed," Christo explained during a training session for the monitors. "Also, the artwork cannot stay because it expresses freedom, poetic freedom -- all projects are about freedom. This project cannot be bought or sold, nobody can charge, can sell tickets. Freedom is the enemy of possession," said Christo, forcing us to consider our cultural role as consumers.

The first days it was like theater or performance art when 90 mountain climbers and 120 workers were wrapping the monolith. Although temporary downpours drenched visitors, thousands of people had already made pilgrimages. And when the first of the seventy panels was rolled down, there was huge applause. For the duration of the wrapping, the area around the Reichstag changed to a big magnet for tourists discussing art, the history of the building and having fun.

The weather was not cooperative in the beginning. On some days, the installation needed to be stopped because high winds turned the fabric panels not yet held by the rope into huge sails.

The fabric is a very important aspect in the art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The vulnerability and fragility is translated by the fabric. It creates a great kind of urgency. You want to touch it; it is linked to your senses, very sensual. "[It's] not the act of wrapping [that] is important, but the use of fabric in many different colors and forms," Jeanne-Claude explained. And Christo continued: "Fabric was always a great inspiration for thousands of years, in marble, bronze, wood and other material. The rich falls in the walls of the Wrapped Reichstag have a dramatic expression, they reflect the falls, pleats and drapery you can see in the Pergamon Museum."

Tailored with a precision one can usually only find in haute-couture clothing, the 100,000 square meters (119,603 square yards) of fabric were held in place by 15,600 meters (17,060 yards) of blue rope. The entire fabric was coated with only 4 kg (8.82 lbs.) of aluminum, using a special technique called monomolecular method. On June 16 seventy panels of the fabric, each panel averaging 37 by 40 meters (l21.4 x 131.2 ft.) and each weighing almost a ton, were lifted up by five huge cranes on top of the roof. The actual wrapping started on June 17. The entire international press was there, and small, unmanned, remote-controlled helicopters that looked and sounded like big wasps were filming for various TV stations.

Two times more material was used than was needed, which allowed deep vertical pleats that cascaded down. Because there is always some wind around the Reichstag, the wind was playing with the pleats of the fabric, causing a quiet movement.

The color of the fabric and the many deep vertical pleats created a dramatic contrast between light and shadow. This shape transformed the building into a new form. "The wrapping of the Reichstag was like building a building," says Christo.

At a press conference, a reporter from a Jerusalem newspaper asked the artists if they would wrap the Knesset. "The Reichstag is the third and last building we wrapped. We have too many other projects to do. We cannot always wrap buildings. Otherwise we would be called the wrappers," Jeanne-Claude answered.

This project cost $13,000,000, everything financed by the artists themselves through selling their drawings, collages, and scale models of their projects. "All projects are inspired through personal ideas that give the freedom of the work. Freedom, because when it comes down to it, does not have to be justified," explains Christo.

The Reichstag building, a Victorian-style Renaissance Baroque hodgepodge built in 1884, was burned under Hitler's reign, partly destroyed during World War II and reconstructed in the l960s, but remained unused by German politicians. In 1989, the Berlin Wall, which ran right behind the east side of the Reichstag, crumbled down. The building became significant again, standing for freedom, democracy, and East-West reunification. Now that the Wrapped Reichstag project is finished, the surroundings will totally change. Many government buildings will be erected in the space around the Reichstag, the future parliament will have completely moved in by the year 2000 and the time and open space of the Wrapped Reichstag happening will only be in our memories.

100,000 square meters (1,076,000 square feet) of thick woven polypropylene fabric with an aluminum surface and 15,600 meters (51,181 feet) of blue polypropylene rope diameter 3.2 cm. (1.25"), were used for the wrapping of the Reichstag. The facades, the towers and the roof were covered by 70 tailor-made fabric panels, twice as much fabric as the surface of the building.

The work of art was entirely financed by the artists, as have all their projects, through the sale of preparatory studies, drawings, collages, scale models as well as early works and original lithographs. The artists do not accept sponsorship of any kind.

In Bonn, on February 25,1994, at a plenary session, presided by Prof. Dr. Rita Sussmuth, the German Bundestag (parliament) debated for 70 minutes and voted on the work of art. The result of the roll call vote was: 292 in favor, 223 against and 9 abstentions.

The Reichstag stands up in an open, strangely metaphysical area. The building has experienced its own continuous changes and perturbations: built in 1894, burned in 1933, almost destroyed in 1945, it was restored in the sixties, but the Reichstag always remained the symbol of Democracy.

Throughout the history of art, the use of fabric has been a fascination for artists. From the most ancient times to the present, fabric, forming folds, pleats and draperies, is a significant part of paintings, frescoes, reliefs and sculptures made of wood, stone and bronze. The use of fabric on the Reichstag follows the classical tradition. Fabric, like clothing or skin, is fragile, it translates the unique quality of impermanence.

For a period of two weeks, the richness of the silvery fabric, shaped by the blue ropes, created a sumptuous flow of vertical folds highlighting the features and proportions of the imposing structure, revealing the essence of the Reichstag.

In the late 1970s Andy Warhol produced some of his most ambitious paintings, often in series. Shadows (1978) is a sequence of 102 large paintings, exhibited side by side on all four walls of a large room, so that all the paintings become a dramatic and colorful environment. The images appear to be completely abstract, but in fact the black silkscreened ink, on variously colored backgrounds, depicts enlarged details of a photograph, probably of the corner of a room. The paintings have a flickering quality, reminiscent of the repeated frames of a film strip. Warhol thought of the room as a discotheque-like space where people could meet, socialize, or dance, as they did at the Studio 54 nightclub which he frequented at the time.

Shadows was first shown in New York in January 1979. It was acquired by Dia Center for the Arts and has been shown only once since, at The Menil Collection in Houston.