- By Helen
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Image: Christo and Jeanne-Claude Wrapped Trees, Foundation Beyeler and Berower Park, Riehen, Switzerland, 1997-98, photo Wolfgang Volz © 1998 Christo
Christo Javacheff, the Bulgarian artist known simply as Christo, has always intrigued me since I first saw cliff faces and large buildings wrapped in silk cloth, and fields ribboned with bright yellow or brilliant white bands running for kilometres, his unique concept defying an art genre.
Recently I came upon a book about his life and his artistic collaborator and wife, Jeanne-Claude, titled Christo and Jeanne-Claude – A Biography by Burt Chernow (Wolfgang Volz 2002). It was interesting, to me, how Chernow writes about the viewer’s response to the Christo’s earlier works of small wrapped objects, having no choice but to change the perspective of what viewers of the works saw not knowing exactly what to think. Chernow says, “The act of shrouding can set routine perception askew.” (p.82)
Chernow writes, “Christo’s seemingly impromptu, anonymous parcels await, even insist on, emotional transactions. Fragile, imbued with hidden meaning and worth, they evoke incongruous feelings and expectations. Packages are meant to be opened. Making one presumes its eventual coming apart. Each has a life span and uncertain afterlife. Ironically, an innate sense of a package’s transitory state contradicts the traditional, conditional view of an art object as a permanent entity. Christo has always rejected the notion of permanence as illusory. He later said ‘In a way, we are surrounded by ruin and debris in our museums, and we try to pretend that they are art.’ In a world where artists dream of immortality, his works brashly assert their mortality.”(p. 82)
Perhaps, like works in a Museum, are we mortals pretending that death isn’t inevitable? From what I have experienced of the Western cultural perspective, death and ageing is considered to be something that can be either cured or avoided, ignoring the fact that our life does end and our bodies do eventually come apart.
A parallel can be drawn between Christo’s motives for wrapping objects and the covering of a body using a shroud; both reveal that the contents are in a state of impermanence, and the covering of a body known to us can change our perception with its new context, thus drawing our attention to the value of a life or an object.
Without doubt, seeing a dead body is proof that a person is dead. Mourners can often be filled with regret for unexpressed feelings or acknowledgment of someone’s value. Death can bring to the fore love and other emotions, such as anger.
So how can funeral attire or a shroud place value on a dead body? Any gift, such as a birthday or Christmas present, is presented to us wrapped. There is energy and ceremony in the presenting of a gift. The recipient’s hands feel the package, feeling and wondering about its content: is it hard or soft, light or heavy, does it rattle or not? Such anticipation and guessing builds and prolongs our excitement and anticipation until all is revealed. The paper used to wrap a gift sends a message too, indicating the taste or style of the gift giver, and perhaps the taste of the gift receiver. Effort put into wrapping a present can measure the care and love a person has for the recipient. In the act of wrapping, time can be used to reflect and appreciate the value of a life, as does the making of a shroud.
Is covering a body at the end of life the reverse of present giving? Is wrapping a deceased body in a shroud a way of sending them back to wherever we believe life came from? Is wrapping a body a way of symbolising that life is meant to end and by wrapping it we close the end of that life?
A hand made shroud can convey a few things: acceptance that a life has ended, marking its impermanence on earth, and a display of honouring that life by a collective, creative retrospective reflected on a shroud using a range of artistic techniques.
In describing his wrapped objects, Christo said, “All these objects are related to territory, organisation, and territory limits. It’s something like clothing on a woman. The cloth on a woman is much more revealing than the naked woman.”
Can a shroud reveal more about the life of a person? Not entirely, for a naked dead body in its natural state can reveal as much about a person’s life. Yet I understand Christo’s observation as the wrapping is attached to character and characteristics. A shroud can compliment and honour characteristics of a person. A shroud can draw attention to the individual body shape that is instantly recognisable by loved ones. A shroud can represent a final reminder of our limited time as we know it, like an ephemeral imprint of a foot in sand. Or, is it simply that a shroud covers a body after the life force has left, and wraps our memories of that life, keeping them safe and bundled away in our head and heart?