Architectural Digest (UAE) - - Contents - WORDS AMY BRAD­FORD

Artist Christo dis­cusses his most am­bi­tious project yet... in the UAE 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. chris­toand­jean­

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

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