The "Festivalization of Politics" at Christo's Wrapped Reichstag
In the 1990s, the Berlin Senate supported many big-budget public art projects that was part of a broader phenomenon in municipal politics that urban sociologists Hartmut Haussermann and Walter Siebel have dubbed the “festivalization of politics.” Though this process began in the 1970s, it accelerated in the 1990s as a result of the increased interurban competition brought on by the twin forces of neoliberalism and globalization. The “festivalization of politics” typically involved public-private partnerships sponsoring large public spectacles and events aimed at attracting corporate and media interest in the city.
The most prominent example of the “festivalization of politics” in 1990s Berlin was Wrapped Reichstag, a public art installation from Bulgarian-born artist Christo and his partner Jeanne-Claude. After decades of lobbying the German government for permission, the artists finally succeeded in wrapping the historic Reichstag building on June 24, 1995, with the help of a team of mountain-climbers rappelling down the building. Christo and Jean Claude’s Wrapped Reichstag required 119,603 square yards of silver polypropylene fabric weighing 135, 583 pounds.
To the local taxpayers’ delight, the artists independently funded the massive (and expensive) project through money earned from selling sketches and collages of the project to collectors, museums, and galleries. Christo’s desire to wrap the Reichstag had had many supporters since the 1970s—including former Chancellor Willi Brandt. During the debate in the Bundestag over Christo’s project in February 1994, it became clear how the project had taken on a new symbolic weight following unification. The Bundestag was already preparing to refurbish the old Reichstag building and resume use of the capitol by the late 1990s. Christo’s supporters argued that the action could serve as a ceremonial “new beginning,” marking the transition from Reichstag to Bundestag.
Bundestag members speaking out in support of Wrapped Reichstag also borrowed from the rhetoric of the 1970s “new cultural politics” that continued to shape German lawmakers’ understanding of the function of art in society. Praising Christo’s self-financing of the project, one SPD representative incited applause from all party fractions when he declared: “In a world, in which art is measured above all by its price, this art action, which cannot be bought or sold, reminds us that art is more than a commodity.” In 1994, the Bundestag finally voted to approve the project, ending Christo’s nearly two decades of lobbying efforts for the project.
Kurt Buchwald says: No Photography!
During the two-week event, five million gawkers poured into the site to see Christo’s completed masterwork. Football fans in town for the German Federal League finals also made special trips over to the Platz der Republik to view the massive conceptual installation. Unsurprisingly, some local art critics and artists were not as swept away by the sight. As local gallerist Hans Ulrich Olbrich chided, “Berlin has a fatal tendency to always bring back the avant-garde of yesterday.”
Others relished the festive mood in the surrounding area and seized the moment to stage their own responses to Christo. On the opening day, a group of men and a child wrapped their bodies in garbage bags and tarps as a playful imitation of the project.
The ubiquitous East Berlin action artist Kurt Buchwald was also on hand to make his own intervention, rolling out his “no photography” banner on the Platz der Republic featuring a black pictogram of a camera with a red diagonal line running through it. Moving among the visitors gathered outside the Reichstag, Buchwald informed the crowds through a megaphone that they were not allowed to take photographs or video recordings and handed out fliers declaring the area a “camera free zone.” The fliers warned that the “aura” of Wrapped Reichstag was put at risk by the excessive photography.