CASTLE IN THE SAND
Artist Christo discusses his most ambitious project yet... in the UAE desert
AT THE AGE OF 83, THE ARTIST CHRISTO IS EMBARKING ON HIS MOST AMBITIOUS PROJECT YET – TO BUILD A MONUMENTAL SCULPTURE
IN THE LIWA DESERT…
For those who associate Christo and Jeanne-Claude solely with their extraordinary wrapped buildings, the artists’ website has some stern words. In 1998, Jeanne-Claude penned a long text listing the “Most Common Errors” circulating in the press about the couple’s work. “It is totally idiotic to call Christo and Jeanne-Claude ‘the wrapping artists’,” it admonishes. “The last time they had an idea of ‘wrapping’ was in 1975.” For good measure, she offered the following piece of advice: “We believe that labels are important, but mostly for bottles of grape.”
The unveiling of The London Mastaba on the Serpentine this June should have shattered any lingering stereotypes. Constructed from 7,506 stacked oil barrels painted red, blue, mauve and white, the monumental structure is named after the Ancient Egyptian word for a tomb, or ‘stone bench’. It is just one of many barrel artworks Christo has made since 1958, when, as a Bulgarian émigré in Paris, he began experimenting with the paint cans lying around in his studio. Some he covered in resin-soaked canvas and twine; others were left in their naked state. In 1961, after renting a friend’s garage, which happened to be next to a yard used for storing oil drums, these low-cost sculptures began to increase in scale and daring. “The magic of the barrels is in their proportions, their simplicity,” says the artist. “When they are stacked, the angles will always be 60 degrees.”
In 1968, Christo and Jeanne-Claude created their first Mastaba at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art; made up of 1,240 barrels, it was much smaller than the London version. Both, however, would be dwarfed by a vast new model planned for the Liwa Desert south of Abu Dhabi, which would contain 410,000 barrels and stand 492 feet tall – 11 feet higher than the Great Pyramid at Giza. If realised, it would be the world’s largest sculpture, and, unlike previous Mastabas, it is also intended to be permanent.
Christo is now working alone – Jeanne-Claude died in 2009 – but the Abu Dhabi Mastaba is a project they conceived together, back in the late 1970s. Their friend Louis de Guiringaud, then France’s foreign secretary, had advised them of a suitable site in the UAE. They subsequently made many trips to the region, patiently nurturing relationships that would help get the project off the drawing board.
Christo artworks are notoriously slow in the making – it can take decades to secure the right permissions for such large-scale public installations – but at 41 years and counting, this is the longest gestation yet. It will be worth it to fulfil his greatest ambition and build a new landmark for the 21st century, says the artist. “We have worked out that the footprint of The Mastaba will be the size of St Peter’s Square in Rome – nothing in the world has ever been built like that,” he says. “It will be like the Eiffel Tower in the desert. I am now 83 years old, and I hope to do it before I die.”
The work’s permanent status is in marked contrast to previous projects, which, as Jeanne-Claude wrote in her statement, were deliberately evanescent. Where most artists strive to make work that endures, she explained, she and her husband sought to celebrate ‘the quality of love and tenderness that human beings have for what does not last’.
The diaphanous fabric they used to wrap objects, buildings and landscapes was an expression of this fragile quality, as was the nature of the monuments they chose to wrap. They sought out buildings that have been subject to the vicissitudes of
fate: notably the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris (wrapped in 1985), which has been demolished and rebuilt several times since the 16th century; and the Berlin Reichstag (1995), which suffered the depredations of the Nazi era and wartime bombings before being restored in the 1990s.
The fleeting presence of these artworks was not just a metaphorical conceit, however. Christo insists they are intensely physical. “My projects are about the real things. The real wind. The real wet. The real dry,” he says. “They are not propaganda. I make things that have no function, except maybe pleasure.”
Freedom is of the utmost importance to him. “I escaped at the age of 21 from a communist country to have artistic freedom and I will not give one millimetre of this freedom for compromises,” he says. “This is why we pay for our projects.”
Christo has never accepted sponsorship, refuses royalties on books and films about his work and acts as his own art dealer, ploughing all the money from sales of project drawings into future ideas. Despite his worldwide success, he continues to live modestly in New York, where he has occupied the same studio since 1964. “I work standing 16 hours a day,” he says. “I do not like to sit down. I have no stools in my studio.”
As well as being frugal, Christo takes care over the environmental impact of his work. In this he was well ahead of his time: the small early pieces were made using recycled cans and barrels, while later, land-based sculptures left only a positive imprint on their location. After the wrapped works were dismantled, the materials were mostly recycled and the site restored to its original condition – or, in some cases, cleaned up. In 1983, when eleven Florida islands were enclosed with pink fabric for Surrounded Islands, over 40 tonnes of rubbish were removed from their coastlines. “Christo and Jeanne-Claude are the cleanest artists in the world,” proclaimed the latter.
If The Abu Dhabi Mastaba does rise from the sands of the Liwa Desert in the coming years – and fewer than half of Christo’s planned projects have come to fruition – it will join Baharash Architecture’s star-shaped Oasis Eco Resort (scheduled to open in 2020) and catapult the region into the global spotlight. The Mastaba’s mosaic-like yellow and ochre surface, reminiscent of traditional Islamic architecture, will gleam in the sun. It will be an extraordinary sight. Abu Dhabi’s residents can only hope, like Christo, that it comes to pass. christoandjeanneclaude.net
Built from 7,506 multicolored barrels stacked
into a trapezoidal pyramid , The London Mastaba stands 65 feet tall, 90 feet wide, and 130 feet long. Floating on Serpentine Lake behind Kensington Palace, the temporary sculpture will be on view to the public until
September 23, 2018
“The Mastaba will be like the Eiffel Tower in the desert. I am 83 years old now. I hope to do it before I die”
From Top: Christo and Jeanne-Claude in the Liwa Desert scouting locations; Christo with a scale model of The Abu Dhabi Mastaba; A 1979 model of the Abu Dhabi Mastaba
“I escaped from a Communist country to have artistic freedom and I will not give one millimetre of this freedom for compromises” Mastaba Abu Dhabi Project
FROM TOP: Christo in his studio with a preparatory drawing for Thein 2012; Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Valley Curtain in Rifle, Colorado, 1972; Christo’s 2016 installation The Floating Piers in Northern Italy, made using some 200,000 floating cubes; The Gates installation in New York, which ran for 23 miles and took 26 years to realise