Updated: Aug 19, 2022
Reading Christo’s “L’ Arc de Triomphe, empaqueté” in the time of Covid-19
Christo Javacheff (“Christo”) always kept a special place in his heart for Paris since arriving there as a young emigrant from Bulgaria in 1958. The project to wrap the Triumphal Arch (Arc de Triomphe), agreed in 2017, was unfinished at the time of his death in May 2020. Now, in September 2021, after two months’ construction, the Arch stands shrouded in 25,000 m2 of recycled silver material and bound with thick red rope.
The work is a remarkable statement of our current time. Christo’s work brought art to the people in everyday, visible, and accessible places. As we cautiously acknowledge that public gatherings are acceptable again, where better to step into shared space than in and around L' Arc de Triomphe, empaqueté.
Traditionally, the Triumphal Arch in Paris is “a national symbol of unity, and [now], more than ever, resilience and hope”. It is the resting place of an unknown soldier who died in Verdun during World War I (1914-1918), and the site of the Eternal Flame. Ceremonies commemorating war, suffering, loss, resilience in the face of adversity, and hopes of lasting peace take place there every year. In non-pandemic times, millions of visitors stand on the Champs Élysées and take photos of the Arch. But if we were aware of the original symbolism, how much more potent is the wrapped version!
Commissioned in 1806 to celebrate Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, many of the friezes and sculptures represent French battles in heroic fashion. Wrapped, nationalism disappears. We move beyond the confinement of those boundaries into a global perspective.
Watching the cranes and mechanical arms swooping in and out during the construction, lit by floodlights during the night, I am reminded of images of intensive care rooms with intubated patients surrounded by blinking machines, cables, and tubes; the incessant movement of people and machinery caring for sick patients. And then there is the application of the bandages, the covering that will protect and heal. Nearby, the glittering Eiffel Tower can be seen emitting its sparkle and lighthouse beam into the darkness, seeking out those in need of light.
A huge hug for humanity
Once the wrapping is complete, the Arch takes on different associations. A giant elephant or a Star Wars flame-throwing tank on long legs are two images that came to mind. But standing under the French flag and looking high up above us to the silver folds of the covering, there is a feeling of gentle protection. We’re cushioned under the pleats of a marquee. The silver mesh material could be Frodo’s chain-mail vest; lightweight and life-saving. On the top of the Arch, even the flooring has been covered. We’re cocooned in the embrace of the monument. It is though Christo has given us a huge hug for humanity.
The red thread
Holding the silver folds together is a strong, blood red-coloured rope. There is no sensation of choking, of cutting off our breath. Blood is circulating around the body, supporting vital life functions. Hold onto the red thread. We can use it to climb or as a guide. It will lead us out of the mire and into which direction? That will be the viewer’s choice – eight avenues radiate out from the Arch. Whichever tree-lined route you choose, the paths are open wide and the destination clearly in sight.
The shape of our future
Our future is still under wraps. Try as we might, many of us are dithering in the mists and fog that Covid brought with it. We can’t decide whether we want the old ways or the new, or if there are other possibilities. Dull as predictability may have been, it has little use today.
And yet, we have not lost all control. It may take courage to leap over the chasm of uncertainty but ultimately that is what we have to do, so why not take charge now and make the first step? We have the freedom of choice in dozens of aspects of our daily lives, except we are mostly unaware of our liberty. Want more exercise? Walk to the next bus stop or train station instead of the closest one. Or jump up and down on the spot. (I jog for seven minutes every day, without leaving the room.) Better food? The old adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” still holds good. Turn off your digital toys (tools) for a few minutes at least once a day. We don’t have to take giant leaps. In fact, small is better in the beginning. A shuffle or a tiny little hop – if you’ve not done one for a long time – is just perfect for surprising yourself. Dance a jig, a gallop, or a waltz on a daily basis and you’ll notice how quickly you recover your creative juices as well as your good humour. With creativity, you can begin to model and shape your own future.
If you can’t make up your mind where to start, do like Christo. Wrap yourself up (or hide under a blanket), close your eyes, and spend five minutes sitting quietly. Just you. For yourself. Look for that red thread. You may not find it instantly; that doesn’t matter. Allow yourself time to enjoy a hug for humanity every day and when you’re ready, pick up the thread.
PS: For more ideas and activities to help reset your brain and release past habits and tensions, visit www.swiveloutofstress.org or join the Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/swiveloutofstress
 “symbole national d’union et, plus que jamais, de résilience et d’espoir” in “Un artiste / un Monument. L’Arc de Triomphe empaqueté. Christo et Jeanne-Claude”. Philippe Bélaval, president of the Centre of National Monuments, 2021.
All photos copyright of the author.