I love to travel and explore the world, and Europe is my favorite place since I was born and raised there. One of the places I wanted to visit was France and I was fortunate to visit Paris in October. In addition to visiting all the main art actions, I was able to visit an usual art project, the wrapped Arc de Triomphe. This project was a long-life dream of Christo.
He was a Bulgarian refugee who had escaped Soviet occupation like me, but he made his way to Paris in 1958. He went to Paris because he was an artist and that was where he believed the capital of art was located. In 1961, three years after he met his wife in Paris, Christo and Jeanne-Claude began creating works of art in public spaces. One of their projects was to wrap a public building. When he arrived in Paris, Christo rented a small room near the Arc de Triomphe and had been attracted by the monument ever since.
During his career he and his wife did a lot of different projects to transform public spaces. One of his dreams was to wrap the Arc de Triomphe. Even in his early work, he was thinking big, wondering what it would look like to wrap something important and public—like, for instance, the Arc de Triomphe at the western end of the Champs-Élysées. Unfortunately, he passed way before he could achieve this dream. But, per Christo’s wishes, the wrapped L’Arc de Triomphe was completed by his team after his death.
From my hotel window in Paris, I was able to see the giant silver Arch among the golden trees. We decided to go there immediately after we unpacked out luggage and we had a cup of aromatic, double espresso to rejuvenate ourselves.
After going through the checks of our green certificates, we headed to the tunnel that led to the Arch. The pictures on the walls told the structure’s story. Footsteps filled the tunnel, and it was difficult to read everything under each picture in the dim amber light. My mask made my breathing difficult, and I quickened my pace at the sight of the stream of light at the end of the tunnel. Fresh raindrops fell on my flushed face as I exited, and I removed my mask to take a deep breath of the cold autumn air.
I didn’t have time to think, because my attention was drawn to the arch. It was a splash of silver and gray. Hundreds of people moved around its bold giant columns like an anthill. Camera flashes reflected off of the metallic gray-blue fabric.
We were in the open air, but it felt like a big gallery that gathered the whole world under its roof.
Squeezing my umbrella that could fly out of my hands at any moment, I slipped between the smiling faces of the people. I smiled in return and walked toward the arch, trying not to interfere with selfie and group photos.
Languages merged into one: German, French, English, Russian, Scandinavian, Arabic, and Slavic, and others creating a sound a music of delight and wonder.
After a few minutes, I crept to the arch and, without waiting for an invitation, went closer to touch it. I shivered at the coldness and roughness of the gray-blue fabric. When I touched it, the threads of the fabric felt like muscle fibers wrapped around the body of the arch. The red threads ran like veins through it, tying it tightly to the body of the arch.
The arch looked like a great Egyptian mummy to me, wrapped up, veiled, and ready for its next journey. Beneath the heavy material lay the graceful forms of baroque bas-reliefs depicting battles, victories, and triumphs. But in those days, this story was closed, the forms were transformed, and the arch had wrapped its history under a silver veil.
When I stood in the center below it and looked up, I felt small, lost in space. The light from the spotlights accentuated the folds, the shadows; the glare formed a web of beauty. I felt the power of the silver dome above my head.
It was me and the wind, even the clatter of footsteps on the plates could not disturb this moment.
The wind passed beneath the arch, crashing into the crowd and continuing its way through the veins of Paris.
It was a cold autumn day, but I felt a lot of energy around me, people from all over the world watching, observing and reflecting.
The art project received positive and negative feedback, but from my perspective, it was an art project that united people during the time of a pandemic, when we are all scared of human interaction and have gone virtual. The sound of cheers, the smiles on people’s faces, the noise of the crowd was like a gift to me, a spark of life. This gave me hope that everything would be fine and people would find the right path again. Cheers, hugs, something we didn’t see often after the start of the pandemic. Art is a temple of the human soul, and it comes in all shapes, colors, media and ideas.
Images copyright Nelly Tonchev and Vesselina Toncheva