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Christo's Pont Neuf Project In Curious Paris--it's A Wrap

September 24, 1985|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

PARIS — Was there a cover-up? Was someone stonewalling? These were the burning questions in the French capital last week. The answers to both were clearly "Yes." Did this mean that President Francois Mitterrand would be forced to resign? The answer to that seemed to be clearly "No," for although he was incontrovertibly involved, he had done all the right things to gain credit and avoid blame.

There were some who felt all this had to do with something called Greenpeace. The art crowd, however, knew that the cover-up was perpetuated by the artist known as Christo who draped the stone walls of the city's most venerable bridge. The Pont Neuf took the wrap. Christo swathed it in 440,000 square feet of lustrous fabric the color of golden sand and trussed the whole thing with 36,300 feet of rope.

The artist known for such ambitious feats as installing a 24-mile "Running Fence" in Northern California and hanging an orange curtain across a Colorado canyon has now draped the bridge that links the left and right banks of Paris across the Seine via the Ile de la Cite. The Pont Neuf has inspired artists and lovers since its completion in 1606. Christo's dream materialized in unseasonably splendid weather in full view of thousands of strolling Parisians and battalions of reporters. By Sunday morning little remained for him to do but receive accolades and official delegations. "Le Pont Neuf Empagnete" had come off without a hitch. Parapets and walks, archways and lampposts of the bridge--to remain under wraps until Oct. 6--have been arranged to allow pedestrians and motor traffic to flow unimpeded.

As is usual with Christo projects, this one employed resources that were numerically boggling. Conservative estimates place its cost at $2.5 million. More than 500 workers performed tasks both humble and herculean. Students in blue uniforms guarded the bridge and answered tourists' questions. Frogmen, rock-climbers, bargemen and carpenters festooned fabric on the graceful span by raising it from barges under 12 supporting arches while riverboats tooted approval and derision on their foghorns. (The hanging method was developed after a test-wrap of a smaller bridge in the south of France.)

General headquarters for the project were three barges anchored upriver on the quay near the Pont des Artes. Here a bustling corps of workers enacted the usual chaos that accompanies all human attempts at efficiency. An information office staffed by women who looked like fashion models provided the press with contradictory information. A full-scale canteen and cafeteria was housed in a green-and-white striped tent. There workers and favored guests were fed 'round the clock.

When Christo himself appeared, he was inevitably trailed by technicians asking questions or art world courtiers supplicating favors. Basically, the artist did not sleep during the seven days of transformation. He attended personally to such details as the wrapping of lamp standards and felt obliged to be on hand to maintain the morale of his troops. Despite a life on the edge of exhaustion, Christo managed an amiable demeanor, looking rather like a puckish Bulgarian Woody Allen. (He was born there but is now an American citizen. In between he lived in Paris and says he has always wanted to do a bridge.)

The French press, although feeling obliged to report the excitement, has ambivalent feelings towards the quixotic scheme. A bored citizen quoted in France-Soir said the purpose of the project was to put him to sleep. But Le Figaro seemed to capture the general tone best, quoting a Parisian who said, roughly translated, "When you live here all the time, you forget about the beauty of the city. Christo's project rekindles one's appreciation of one's own home."

All together the Pont Neuf package is so lovely and understated compared to other vast and dramatic Christo projects, one is inclined to find it half-vast.

Not so, says Christo. "This was far and away our most difficult work. I planned it for 10 years and had to go through endless bureaucracies and ministries to get it approved. Finally, in 1980 (Paris' Mayor) Jacques Chirac gave us the green light only to interdict the work in April of this year after I had invested over $1.5 million. Our permits were held up to the end of July when Mitterrand gave his personal cachet. Republic or not, this country is still a monarchy and Mitterrand is a king."

Mitterrand may reign in France, but in Christoland the artist rules jointly with his ferociously protective wife, Jean-Claude, the major fund-raiser for his projects and general watchdog.

She materialized to stand by during an interview with a California critic over dinner in the cantina. It was a talk punctuated by interruption. A cook shyly begged an autograph. Luminaries paying respects included Renzo Piano, architect of the Pompidou center; museum director Pontus Hulten; author David Bourdon, and finally a press secretary from Chirac's office. Having once played the villain in the piece, hiz honeur was to pay an official project visit Sunday. The Christos were cool.

After the secretary departed, Jean-Claude called over one of her own. "Arrange things so that we do not have to wait for him," she instructed. "Make him wait for us."

Christo smiled contentedly.

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