Berlin -- In his long, eccentric career of making bold visual statements to a skeptical public, the artist known as Christo has racked up some impressive accomplishments.
He surrounded entire islands with collars of pink fabric in Miami's Biscayne Bay, stretched a high white fence across miles of barren California hills, cloaked a Paris bridge in cloth, and spiked Japanese rice paddies with hundreds of huge blue umbrellas.
But today Christo faces perhaps his toughest challenge yet: winning over the stodgy, gray parliament, the Bundestag, to the cause of art for art's sake. The Bundestag's 662 members were to decide in Bonn this morning whether Christo may wrap their once and future headquarters with reams upon reams of silver cloth.
The building -- the massive Reichstag in central Berlin -- is now vacant, awaiting renovation before the 1998 return of the German capital to Berlin.
Christo says he has wanted to wrap the Reichstag for 23 years, but his request has come up short three times, denied by bureaucrats and elected officials in a land where the power of such people can be as breathtakingly grandiose as Wagnerian opera.
This time around, Chancellor Helmut Kohl is against the idea, but judging from his recent popularity polls, that might be a plus. Besides, what sort of aesthetic judgment can an artist expect from a man who President Clinton recently likened to a sumo wrestler?
Bundestag President Rita Sussmuth is all for the project, and Christo and his supporters have tirelessly lobbied hundreds of other legislators. He spent 150 days in Bonn over the past year, more time than in the New York building where he works and lives with his wife, artist Jeanne-Claude (she, too, has no last name).
But why wrap the Reichstag, other than simply to hide the dark Victorian hulk described as "the height of bad taste" by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1894, when the building was completed?
First of all, says Christo, the building is a great symbol of the past and future of Europe's East-West relations. As a native of Bulgaria who fled the communist East Bloc in 1957, Christo says, "The Reichstag is very deeply related to my origins. The division of Europe was very important, and the only city in the world where east and west were meeting was Berlin. Of course, if I was born in Nebraska this would not have any meaning to me."
The symbolism would have been more powerful if he'd gotten approval the first time, in 1976. Then the Berlin Wall stood only a few hundred yards to the east of the Reichstag. Now the Wall has been torn down and carted away.
That's OK, Christo says. He has other reasons that are purely artistic.
For one thing, the Reichstag sits on a wide expanse of treeless lawn. "The building is a very solitary structure," he says, meaning that if wrapped it would stand out even more on the urban landscape.
Then there's his fascination with using fabric to cover just about anything -- bridges, walls, sidewalks, you name it.
"You see in the great sculptures of Rome and Greece how the fabric is important in the shaping of the body, the shrouding of the structure," he says. "But unlike the classical sculptures, in my wrapping project the fabric will move in the wind. It will make the Reichstag like a living structure. It will be very exciting."
The Reichstag also offers the advantage of not being deeply associated with the Nazi era. Hitler, being a dictator, had little use for a place housing legislators, although he did use the building to stage a nasty show trial against people accused of trying to burn the place down. But the most memorable picture of the Reichstag from that era was of a conquering Russian soldier high above the ground, placing a Soviet flag atop the building in 1945, with a devastated Berlin sprawling in the background.
The project won't be easy. Christo figures it will take 12 months to get the silver fabric sewed up the way he wants, then another four days to drape it around and over the building and tie it into place. Construction crews and mountain climbers would be hired to help. People would then have two weeks to look it over.
Christo made a final public pitch for the project on Wednesday night in Berlin, to an appreciative crowd of German and American business people attending a dinner of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany, at 50 Deutsche marks apiece (about $29).
This crowd, usually treated to the observations of bankers and government ministers in suits and starched shirts, instead got Christo with his khaki safari jacket over an open-collar shirt, dishevelled shoulder-length hair, and his thick horn-rim glasses.
The group's chairman, John Peter Sieveking, was a little uncertain about how to introduce the artist.
"I just call you 'Christo'?" he asked hesitantly in the moments before the crowd streamed in.
"Yes, only 'Christo,' " interjected Wolfgang Volz, manager of the Reichstag project.
'Not 'Mr. Christo,' " Christo added with a laugh.
So, of course, when a question-and-answer session began following Christo's speech, a woman in an evening gown rose from her seat and began, "Mr. Christo . . ."
But Christo seemed more than up to the challenge of a business audience. He appealed to their commercial instincts, talking of the economic impact for the German firm that would provide the fabric, for the hundreds of workers who would be employed wrapping the building, and for the city, which would attract thousands of gawking visitors.
And it won't cost them a single pfennig, he reminded them. He pays for his projects by selling his drawings and models, and through donations.
This time the doubters say, as some have in the past, that the project just wouldn't be right for the Reichstag, that it might even be disrespectful.
Christo's response: if you can make art out of the image of Jesus, why should the Reichstag be off-limits? "I cannot believe that any German would be ashamed to see the Reichstag become a work of art," he says. "Already it is in history books, but now it would be in books of art, and only I can do that, not a politician."
Provided that the politicians let him.
Christo's entourage has reserved 20 seats in the balcony of the Bundestag to watch today's debate. It's scheduled to last 66 minutes, then comes the vote.
Sounding for a moment like a politician, Christo says, "I am cautiously optimistic. But it is a total mystery. We have seen many of them [in the Bundestag] and we cannot do anything anymore. It is like being in the lull before the storm."