Public art

Could an equivalent of wrapping the Arc de Triomphe happen in the UK? Not likely under our current leadership

Christo's posthumously realised project benefitted from France having a mature understanding of the importance of culture

Christo and Jeanne Claude's dream to wrap the Arc de Triomphe was finally realised in October

Christo and Jeanne Claude's dream to wrap the Arc de Triomphe was finally realised in October

A closer Luke

Ben Luke, our Review editor and podcast host, weighs in on the pressing issues facing the UK art world and beyond

Last month, I saw Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped (until 3 October) in Paris. It is the first time I have witnessed one of the couple’s wrapped buildings.

I was stunned by its uncanny power, by the spectacle of seeing the bombast of France’s best-known national building (originally a commemoration of military prowess, commissioned by Napoleon to mark his victory over the Russian and Austrian armies at Austerlitz), numbed with 25,000 sq. m of shiny, blue-tinged recyclable polypropylene and 3km of crimson rope, and turned into a monumental Surrealist object. I returned several times, witnessing its effects shift over the course of the day, from a lambent creamy hue at sunrise via dazzling radiance in full sun to a gentle white-gold shimmer by night under artificial light.

Almost as stunning as the work itself was the French authorities’ commitment to it. The Place Charles de Gaulle was pedestrianised in the service of delivering art to a curious and expectant public. Indeed, pulling the project off was fairly simple, with little of the tortuous negotiations and bureaucracy Christo and Jeanne-Claude often experienced.

Vladimir Yavachev, Christo’s nephew and long-term collaborator who oversaw the project, told me that, although Christo first thought of wrapping the arch in the early 1960s, the project finally gained momentum when he began planning his Centre Pompidou retrospective, Christo Paris, in 2017. The Pompidou proposed that he did a public project, to which Christo replied that he was only interested in wrapping the Arc de Triomphe.

The Pompidou’s leaders got behind the idea, enlisted the support of Philippe Bélaval, the president of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, who in turn talked to the French president Emmanuel Macron. “And everybody was on board,” Yavachev says. “The permission was quite quick.” It was the response of a nation with a mature understanding of the importance of culture.

Meanwhile, just two days before I saw the Arc, Nadine Dorries was appointed culture secretary in the UK. We have yet to hear of her credentials for the role other than that she has written novels that various newspaper columnists have had much fun deriding in the days since her appointment. We know little of her interests in art, museums and heritage at this point. But Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian newspaper’s chief culture writer, reported that she’d been told by The Spectator, the right-wing journal, that Dorries will “oversee a more punchy attitude to the culture war aspect of her brief”.

What a depressing idea. But it rings true given Dorries’s previous public pronouncements, such as the widely circulated tweet from 2017 in which she claimed that “Left wing snowflakes” were, among other things, “tearing down historic statues, removing books from universities” and, wait for it, “dumbing down panto”. More tweets, packaged in a thread by the campaign group Hope Not Hate, chronicled Dorries’s history of prejudice. Among other inflammatory tweets, she approvingly retweeted Tommy Robinson, the far-right criminal and rabble-rouser. How embarrassing it is when a government appoints a culture secretary whom it knows will seek to stoke division, rather than defend and unite progressive and traditional cultural industries and artistic communities that have faced unprecedented challenges in the past two years.

I tried to picture something like L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped happening in the UK in this present climate. Can you imagine an intervention by a contemporary artist involving a monument of comparable stature and national importance—Nelson’s Column, say—in which the monument is not glorified but temporarily reshaped and recontextualised, perhaps with ambiguous if not critical meaning? Can you imagine the UK government working with arts and heritage bodies in pulling out all the stops to make it happen? Me neither.