There is no doubt that Christo's enveloping&emdash;or as one would intuitively, despite his objections, more aptly call it: wrapping of the Reichstag does not fall outside this aesthetic tradition of advanced art, but is a direct continuation of it. This is proved by things like Man Ray's wrapped-up sewing machine (L'énigme d'Isidore Ducasse), or Henry Moore's drawing of a tied-up statue being looked at by spectators. The shrouded, unknown work is a paradigmatic image of modern art's denial of the possibility of pictorial representation, and as such has often been repeated. Christo's handling of this motif, in turn, brings us back to exactly those curtains and draperies which had characterized academic art, so severely castigated by modernism. The coatings, the casings, the coverlets, the curtains, all counted as downright embodiments of the insincere, the functionless, the dysfunctional&emdash;as shown best of all by the impressive examples in Max Ernst's collages. The curtain, like plush cloth itself, was identified with the hated bourgeois lifestyle, and thus, when employed ironically as parody, could become a hallmark of heroic anti-bourgeois attitudes. However, as this latest popular instrumentalisation shows, the motif has obviously preserved a secret fascination undisturbed by its emblematic use in criticism. Nothing proves this better than the widespread success of the whole packaging industry. The apostles of environmental consciousness still have very little hope of winning the battle against wrapping and packaging.
After a century of avant-garde polemic against the distinguishing of kernel and husk, the impulse of the polemic seems to have petered out. The act of enveloping, the envelope notion of décor, are no longer the object of denunciation, are no longer felt to be ridiculous or silly. The game is now reversed: it is played against the seriousness of the avant-garde, the draperies of reflections in which art criticism had enveloped it. Now it is the enveloping which constitutes the essence. The Surrealists' assertion that everything is merely surface, and only the surface matters, is now being converted into small change: you hardly find a monument nowadays which wouldn't invite you to touch it, or which you couldn't climb, or which&emdash;even though this is not publicly encouraged&emdash;wouldn't offer a surface to engrave your name on. People's attitudes to works of art have been enriched by what one could call uninhibited "gut reactions".
Arnold Gehlen already thought it quite possible that his famous thesis on the commentary being an indispensable part of modern art might just describe an "intermediate stage" and correspond merely to a "state of siege in a transitory zone". The abundance of literature which grew out of the reflectional capacity of modern art could diminish or become altogether superfluous "when the unusual freedom of the completely uninhibited subjectivity of reception has gained acceptance and the spectator may rely entirely on his own reflections, that is, when he becomes the commentator himself."
Something like this has probably been going on for quite a while now. Contemporary art has emancipated itself and its audience from the tutelage of criticism. People cater for themselves, and are sufficiently aware of their own capacities for reflection. Still, over and above this, the enveloping of the Reichstag has shown something new. The public does not wish to respond at the customary reflection level of the reception of modern art. They no longer want to allow the critics to set the bar too high for them, as was still the case twenty years ago when Walter de Maria performed his great drilling&emdash;the whole approach remained largely esoteric and it fell to Christo to rethink it into populistic concepts. One can much rather say that an anonymous audience is consciously keeping the level low: just settle down in front of the Reichstag, walk round it, stand looking at it, keep your your eyes fixed on it, watch it collectively like a being from an alien star.
The ritual is back. Supposedly, or so it has been claimed by the advanced theory of modern art since the 1930s, it had wandered from art into politics, where it fuelled and canalized those great mass emotions. Now it has returned from politics into art, pretending that nothing has happened, as if there never had been an effort to stylize the world of art as something anti-ritualistic. The ritual as a way of relating to the work of art has returned with the adoration of the enveloped Reichstag, and peacefully too. It was a kind of ritual remembrance of the peaceful demonstrations of 1989 and 1990. Thus it was certainly no coincidence that Christo's greatest success so far took place in Berlin. He filled a vacuum, a vacuum left behind by a political life that has lost all radiance and has returned to mundane affairs.
In a sense both strands have been united here: the mass response of the great political processions on the one hand, and something that is expressly undirected, spontaneous, and peaceful on the other. The automatisms, the reflex-like and primitivistic elements of modern art &emdash;and generally, its apparent belief in man being harmless, "the good man"&emdash;have so far seemed to meet with a heightened reflexion, to emphasize the cerebral aspect of modernism. Now, however, the alleged primitivism of the gesture of enveloping, or wrapping, is reciprocated at the same level with candid and unselfconscious response. Those who cannot respond in this unsophisticated manner may seek refuse in subtle aesthetic discourse. Even so, they will not be able to ignore the significance of this popular response. The mass response to Christo's Reichstag is fundamentally more akin to a tribal gathering than to a group of museum visitors admiring a Jackson Pollock painting.
In its endeavour to break loose from traditional attitudes to art, Modernism experimented with a number of different forms of perception. It was claimed that the perception it wished to induce was a scattered one, like that of the passer-by in a big city&emdash;just the opposite of that of the museum visitor, immersed in the observation of a painting. Still, this was an emphatically individual perception, a compromise between a mass experience and the effort to evade it. The perception which now appears as adequate is an openly mass experience: thousands of people kept spell-bound by a phenomenon for days or even weeks.
The sovereignty of the artist and the democratic act of voting engage in a subtle interplay. Ever since David's Marat's Death, the first picture in modern propaganda, public acclaim has been known to be part and parcel of artistic acts. In the presentation of the painting to the French National Assembly, just like in the exposition of the enveloped Reichstag, we can observe a kind of transference of authorship from the artist to the people as the sovereign. The artist, who has openly led a kind of electoral campaign for his "project", joins the ranks of the audience at the moment of completion and steps forward only after "the voters have spoken". The work of art gets a special kind of aura through public acclaim.
That this can successfully happen depends not only on the aesthetic or perceptional-psychological appeal of the object. It stirs a primordial state of artistic idealism, not far removed from that of the hunted animals of Lascaux. Obviously it actualizes something very hard to name, something that stays on the borderline between images of art, of nature, of dreams, and shuns their explication. It actualizes something that is not easy to describe, even though it assumes an aspect of concreteness which is not at all mystifying. Add to this the fact that the object thus actualized has but a transitory presence, given that "it" will soon disappear. In this purely transitory character lies one of the strongest reasons for our accepting this construct: it is something corporeal, something claiming space for itself (even if it is parasitic on the body of an existing building which it forces temporarily to disappear and which it seems to actually obliterate), yet it is something that will dissolve without residue. The ideal nature of this work of art is guaranteed: it gets completely recycled.
A new utopia has grafted itself on to this momentary existence: the utopia of tracelessness. The enveloped Reichstag&emdash;unintentionally supported by the parallel action against the Brent Spar&emdash;was the utopian self-celebration of a traceless society. The wrapping of the Reichstag had a utopian meaning of peacefulness and of being without consequences; this is what provided it with political and aesthetic radiance.
Translated from the German by Ádám Nádasdy