A re­main­der of one

Esquire (UK) - - Contents - By Miranda Collinge

A 20m pyra­mid is com­ing to Hyde Park. Meet Christo, the artist cre­at­ing the sculp­ture

Christo has wrapped the Re­ich­stag, turned is­lands pink and en­abled peo­ple to walk on wa­ter. This month in Lon­don, the Bul­gar­ian artist un­veils his new­est work, a trun­cated pyra­mid float­ing on the Ser­pen­tine Lake. But the Lon­don Mastaba is a scaled-down ver­sion of another, far more am­bi­tious work: one that he and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, had been plan­ning for decades and which, if he com­pletes it, will be the big­gest and most ex­pen­sive sculp­ture ever cre­ated. But as Christo turns 83, are the odds against their mas­ter­work be­ing re­alised in his own life­time start­ing to stack?

at the begin­ning of April this year, a com­pany called Lon­don Mastaba Lim­ited took up res­i­dence on the north­ern bank of the Ser­pen­tine Lake in Hyde Park. There, in a low white mar­quee and a se­ries of ship­ping con­tain­ers, a group of around 35 engi­neers and con­struc­tion work­ers, overseen by one of the com­pany’s di­rec­tors, an ebul­lient bearded Bul­gar­ian called Vladimir Yavachev, be­gan build­ing a large float­ing plat­form, 40m long and 30m wide, made of white, high-den­sity poly­eth­yl­ene cubes. Over the fol­low­ing few weeks, a second layer of cubes was placed on top, then a hor­i­zon­tal steel frame, fol­lowed by a ver­ti­cal scaf­fold­ing struc­ture. At the begin­ning of May, de­liv­er­ies of 55-gal­lon oil bar­rels, spe­cially con­structed at a fac­tory in the Nether­lands, started to ar­rive. The bar­rels, 7,506 in to­tal, were placed on their side and bolted to the scaf­fold­ing frame in neat rows.

If all con­tin­ues to go to plan, by mid-June the com­pleted struc­ture, which will by now be 20m high and re­sem­ble a pyra­mid with the top cut off – an an­cient form called a “mastaba”, first ap­pear­ing in Me­sopotamia as mud benches, from which the Ara­bic name is de­rived; later seen on a much big­ger scale as tombs for pharaohs and no­bil­ity in Early Dy­nas­tic Egypt — will be floated out into the mid­dle of the Ser­pen­tine. A team of Bul­gar­ian divers will be on hand to make sure the concrete an­chors are in the cor­rect po­si­tion, hav­ing first checked the bot­tom of the lake for un­ex­ploded World War II ord­nance. On 17 June, “The Mastaba (Project for Lon­don, Hyde Park, Ser­pen­tine Lake)”, the new­est work by the Bul­gar­ian-Amer­i­can artist Christo, will be com­plete.

More cor­rectly, it will be the new­est work by Christo and Jean­neClaude, the artist duo who had one of the great cre­ative part­ner­ships — not to men­tion love sto­ries — of the last cen­tury.

Though they both dis­pensed with their sur­names in their pro­fes­sional work, he was born Christo Vladimirov Javach­eff on 13 June, 1935, in Gabrovo, Bul­garia, where his fa­ther owned a fab­ric fac­tory and his po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist mother worked as a sec­re­tary at the Acad­emy of Fine Arts in

‘For small erec­tions may be fin­ished by their first ar­chi­tects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the cope­stone to pos­ter­ity. God keep me from ever com­plet­ing any­thing. This whole book is but a draught — nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Pa­tience!’ — Her­man Melville, Moby-Dick

Sofia. She was born Jeanne-Claude De­nat de Guille­bon — on the same day, in the same year — in Casablanca, Morocco, af­ter her mother, who would later be­come the first fe­male of­fi­cer to en­ter lib­er­ated Paris in Au­gust 1944, was briefly mar­ried to a French gen­eral. Christo and Jeanne-Claude met in 1958, be­came lovers in, as will be­come ap­par­ent, a some­what scan­dalous fash­ion, and be­gan work­ing to­gether in 1961. Over the course of their col­lab­o­ra­tion, they have been re­spon­si­ble for some of the most am­bi­tious, awe-in­spir­ing and di­vi­sive art works ever made.

In 1972, they hung an orange cur­tain mea­sur­ing 18,600sq m be­tween two moun­tains in Colorado. In 1976, they ran a 40km fence of white ny­lon across the dusty fields of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. In 1983, they sur­rounded 11 is­lands in Bis­cayne Bay, Mi­ami, with skirts of hot-pink polypropy­lene fab­ric, so that they looked like Tech­ni­color fried eggs. In 1995, they wrapped the Re­ich­stag in Ber­lin in a 100,000sq m sil­very shroud. In 2005, they placed 7,503 saf­fron fab­ric ban­ners hang­ing from five-me­tre poles through­out Cen­tral Park in New York, cre­at­ing golden path­ways through the bare trees. All of th­ese projects drew crowds in their thou­sands, some­times mil­lions. None of them ex­isted for longer than 16 days.

Over 48 years, Christo and Jeanne-Claude re­alised 23 projects. They failed to get per­mis­sion for 47. Their work has taken them into the very heart of power in many na­tions, with projects stand­ing or fall­ing at the whim of a pres­i­dent or a prime min­is­ter, a mayor or a sheikh. The cost of mak­ing the works has been im­mense, and en­tirely self-funded; the value of them in­cal­cu­la­ble.

In 2009, Jeanne-Claude died, aged 74, from com­pli­ca­tions re­lat­ing to a brain aneurysm. Since her death, Christo has con­tin­ued to work on projects that they con­ceived to­gether. One of them, “The Float­ing Piers”, a network of bright yel­low walk­ways al­low­ing peo­ple to walk on wa­ter, they had pro­posed in 1970 for the Río de la Plata be­tween Ar­gentina and Uruguay. In 2016, Christo re­alised it on Lake Iseo in Lom­bardy, Italy, his first ma­jor project since Jeanne-Claude’s death. It was deemed a tri­umph — Forbes mag­a­zine called it “di­vine” — and 1.2m peo­ple came to see it: twice the num­ber an­tic­i­pated.

The Lon­don Mastaba is also based on an idea that he and Jean­neClaude had had to­gether: in 1968, they pro­posed a float­ing mastaba on Lake Michi­gan but were not granted per­mis­sion. Its ap­pear­ance in the Bri­tish cap­i­tal, how­ever, is some­thing of a surprise — the con­tract with Royal Parks was signed off only five days be­fore con­struc­tion com­menced — though it will un­doubt­edly be­come one of the most talked about cul­tural events in Bri­tain this year.

“Christo is an imag­i­na­tive vi­sion­ary who con­ceives big ideas and brings them to life with re­lent­less de­ter­mi­na­tion,” said Michael R Bloomberg, chair­man of the Ser­pen­tine Gal­leries, at the an­nounce­ment of the Lon­don Mastaba; Bloomberg was also the mayor of New York who cham­pi­oned “The Gates” project in Cen­tral Park. “In New York, we’ve seen how his projects can ben­e­fit cities cul­tur­ally and eco­nom­i­cally, and we’re excited that the Ser­pen­tine will be the site of his next work.”

Given that Hyde Park ex­pects over 7m vis­i­tors in a nor­mal sum­mer, seven-fig­ure au­di­ences are all but guar­an­teed; and at 20m tall, with no trees to ob­scure it, it will be hard to miss. But who would want to?

While con­struc­tion of the Lon­don Mastaba begins across the At­lantic, Christo has re­mained at his stu­dio in SoHo, Man­hat­tan, mak­ing prepara­tory sketches for the project, be­cause, as he says, “I need to work to pay the bills!” His stu­dio oc­cu­pies the top space of a five-floor red­dish-brown build­ing built in the 1860s, which has a rust-coloured fire escape zigzag­ging down the front. Christo and Jeanne-Claude moved here in 1964, il­le­gally at first — liv­ing in com­mer­cial lofts was not per­mit­ted in New York un­til 1971 — and even­tu­ally bought it from their land­lord in 1973. Now it sits next to a branch of Agnès B and faces a fancy trainer shop. It be­longs to an era of the city that is fad­ing, though not gone.

Christo doesn’t have as­sis­tants and will not al­low any­one into his stu­dio — “It is not cleaned since 1964!” — so he re­ceives vis­i­tors in a gallery space-cum-re­cep­tion room on the first floor, which is hot as Hades thanks to boxy heaters against the walls that groan and creak as they pump out hot air sup­plied by the enor­mous gen­er­a­tor in the base­ment that pow­ers the whole build­ing. The room has high ceil­ings and a tired, green­ish-grey car­pet which is start­ing to rum­ple in places, as though it were one of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s works. There are sculp­tures dot­ted about: swad­dled tin cans, stacked oil bar­rels, a plas­tic-wrapped “pack­age” that looks like a preg­nant belly. The walls are cov­ered with Christo’s draw­ings for projects, made and framed by his own hand: some com­pleted, some aban­doned, one still pos­si­ble.

Im­ages of Jeanne-Claude are strik­ingly ap­par­ent around the room, in pho­to­graphs and on the cover of books on the book­case and cof­fee ta­ble. Here she is in a photo taken in her later years, hold­ing her hus­band’s hands, smil­ing, with her trade­mark flame-red hair. Here, a pic­ture of an early work of Christo’s from 1963, a paint­ing of Jeanne-Claude he wrapped in plas­tic, now yel­low­ing, though her parted red lips and fe­line eyes still burn through.

They met in Paris when he was hired to paint sev­eral por­traits of her mother, af­ter he had es­caped Com­mu­nist Bul­garia for Prague and Vi­enna, com­ing to the French cap­i­tal in 1958. Their ro­mance was a lively one. He first be­came in­volved with her half-sis­ter, Joyce; Jeanne-Claude mean­while got en­gaged to another man but be­came preg­nant with Christo’s child (leg­end has it their first kiss was so pas­sion­ate that he broke a tooth). She went through with the mar­riage, but later said that even dur­ing her hon­ey­moon she knew she had to end it: “I’m sure that in­stinc­tively my en­tire body called out to Christo.” Their son, Cyril, was born in 1960, and they mar­ried in 1962.

Jeanne-Claude’s nephew, Jonathan Hen­ery, vice-pres­i­dent of Christo’s com­pany, CVJ Cor­po­ra­tion, goes to fetch him from up­stairs. (There is a fair amount of fam­ily in­volve­ment: Vladimir Yavachev, direc­tor of op­er­a­tions who is over­see­ing con­struc­tion of the Lon­don Mastaba, is Christo’s own nephew, son of his el­der brother, Anani.)

Christo, when he ar­rives, has the en­ergy of a coiled spring. Small, with a cu­mu­lonim­bus of white hair around his ears, he wears glasses, a striped shirt, black train­ers and jeans with a hole in the knee, cinched tight with a wo­ven belt; clothes per­haps roomier than they once were. He chooses a harder chair over the sofa, and does not hes­i­tate to de­tail his vig­or­ous habits. “I’m liv­ing in this build­ing you know since when? Fifty-four years. The same build­ing. No el­e­va­tors. I’m climb­ing 90 stairs ev­ery day. And I’m work­ing stand­ing. No stool in my stu­dio.” (There are stair-lifts in­stalled on the nar­row flights of stairs, which Hen­ery as­sures are only for trans­port­ing heavy boxes and suit­cases.)

Christo be­came an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen in 1973, but his English still tum­bles out in frag­ments. He also spoke French with Jeanne-Claude, and it oc­ca­sion­ally pep­pers his speech and has melded with his still-heavy Bul­gar­ian ac­cent. He likes to an­swer ques­tions with “No!” or some­times, “No! No no no no!” which is alarm­ing at first un­til you re­alise it is a re­flex of sorts, per­haps the re­sult of a life­time of ex­plain­ing, or jus­ti­fy­ing. And that he en­joys be­ing chal­lenged, some­thing at which Jeanne-Claude was par­tic­u­larly adept: “This is mostly I’m miss­ing,” he’ll say later. “She was the most crit­i­cal per­son and I miss her all the time.”

Right now, his mind is fully ab­sorbed by the project in Lon­don, and he is keen to con­vey quite what the peo­ple of Bri­tain are in for. “You know how much it is? 500 tonnes! Float­ing!” he says, with ev­i­dent de­light. And later, of the sculp­ture’s height: “You know what that means, 20 me­tres? Go out­side, walk on the next side­walk — it’s the height of our build­ing. They don’t un­der­stand how big it is! Ha!”

The Lon­don Mastaba will sit in the mid­dle of the Ser­pen­tine Lake, so un­like many other of their projects, those who come will be en­cour­aged to look but not touch. It will, how­ever, be only about 15–20m from the

buoy line of the lake’s swim­ming area, and both row­ing boats and ped­a­los will still be avail­able to rent. And while two sides of the Lon­don Mastaba are sheer ver­ti­cal faces, the other two are slanted, lead­ing to a hor­i­zon­tal plane on top. Christo ac­knowl­edges the po­ten­tial. “Ac­tu­ally, the big­gest stair­way. You can climb, you can walk,” he says. “Go­ing to be tempted, some­one will try to do that.”

And if they do? “Prob­a­bly they should come down!”

The plan­ning for the Lon­don Mastaba — what Christo likes to call the “soft­ware” phase, as op­posed to the “hard­ware” phase of con­struc­tion — was, at least by the stan­dards he is used to, rel­a­tively straight­for­ward. Per­mis­sion was granted by West­min­ster City Coun­cil and a con­tract agreed with The Royal Parks, with the co­op­er­a­tion of other or­gan­i­sa­tions in­clud­ing The Friends of Hyde Park and Kens­ing­ton Gar­dens, and Blue­Bird Boats, who rent out the ped­a­los and will pa­trol the wa­ter. The ob­jec­tions were min­i­mal: some con­cerns were raised about wa­ter qual­ity and ir­ri­ga­tion, and Christo says, with some be­wil­der­ment, “They told me there was some first com­plaint was re­lated for the swans?” The aim, though, as it has been with all their projects, is to leave the area in bet­ter con­di­tion than that in which they found it, by ini­ti­at­ing clean­ing and re­pairs. They usu­ally rent the sites on which their works are made, though in the case of Lon­don they will be leav­ing a legacy. “Of money. Ha!” says Christo. “A legacy of money.”

In fact, Lon­don has been some­thing of a cake-walk com­pared to ear­lier projects (not to men­tion, at an es­ti­mated £3m, rel­a­tively cheap; “Cheap is a word Christo doesn’t like,” his nephew Vladimir ad­vises. “Maybe, in­ex­pen­sive…”).

In 1985, they wrapped the Pont Neuf in Paris in 41,800sq m of golden polyamide fab­ric, but only af­ter nine years of try­ing to se­cure the ap­proval of Jac­ques Chirac, then mayor of the city, and even­tu­ally Pres­i­dent Mit­ter­rand and the French gov­ern­ment. For “The Um­brel­las” in 1991, a transpa­cific dip­tych in which 1,760 gi­ant yel­low para­sols were dot­ted across coastal land in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, and another 1,340 gi­ant blue para­sols placed in fields along the op­po­site coast in Ibaraki Pre­fec­ture, Ja­pan, they had to get per­mis­sion from 25 pri­vate landown­ers (or “cow­boy ranch­ers” as Christo de­scribes them) on one side and 459 rice farm­ers on the other. As Christo re­mem­bers, “Jeanne-Claude was say­ing we drink­ing 6,000 cups of green tea!” Their pro­posal to wrap the Re­ich­stag took 24 years to re­alise and was re­fused three times, be­fore even­tu­ally be­ing ap­proved in a par­lia­men­tary vote. So op­posed was Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Hel­mut Kohl, who felt that it would de­mean the build­ing, that he never went to see it, though an es­ti­mated 5m other peo­ple did.

Some­times the years of lob­by­ing and in­vest­ment do not pay off. Since Jeanne-Claude’s death, Christo has made par­tic­u­larly prom­i­nent bids to re­alise two ma­jor projects that they had con­ceived to­gether. But in Jan­uary 2017, “Over the River”, a plan to sus­pend nearly six miles of sil­very fab­ric over eight stretches of the Arkansas River in Colorado, col­lapsed spec­tac­u­larly in a storm of en­vi­ron­men­tal out­rage and po­lit­i­cal in­trigue.

Christo had faced down five years of law suits filed by a lo­cal group call­ing itself Rags Over the Arkansas River, or Roar, who cited nu­mer­ous fears about the project rang­ing from the dan­gers posed by the large crowds who would come to see it to the plight of the res­i­dent longhorn sheep. Re­port­ing on the ne­go­ti­a­tions in 2015, The Den­ver Post’s fine arts critic, Ray Mark Ri­naldi, wrote that “Christo has en­dured the bu­reau­cratic equiv­a­lent of wa­ter­board­ing with a good at­ti­tude,” de­scrib­ing pub­lic meet­ings at which op­po­nents had been “re­lent­less and rude, in­sult­ing his hair and clothes,” and “mak­ing fun of his ac­cent”.

Ul­ti­mately though, it wasn’t Roar who brought an end to “Over the River”, but Christo him­self, in­sti­gated by the fact that, as of the start of this year, the rent money that he would be pay­ing to the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment (and had been pay­ing since 2011) would be go­ing to the Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion. “I can­not do the project be­cause the per­son change. I don’t even like to dis­cuss, I don’t men­tion the name,” is all he’ll

say. “It’s sim­ply a mat­ter of hu­man de­ci­sions: my project, I don’t like to be in­volved any­more.” He es­ti­mates the cost of the un­re­alised “Over the River” project to be around $14m.

The other project re­mains. If Christo re­alises it, it could prove to be his — or rather, their — great­est work. “Abu Dhabi Mastaba (Project for United Arab Emi­rates)” will be a scaled-up ver­sion of the Lon­don Mastaba. You might even say the Ser­pen­tine project is some­thing of a run-through, a proof of con­cept; show­ing not only how majestic a stack of oil bar­rels can look, but also the kind of cul­tural im­pact it can have, and vis­i­tor num­bers it can at­tract. “The UAE Mastaba project is one of the most am­bi­tious, not to say au­da­cious, projects Christo and Jeanne-Claude con­ceived in a ca­reer of am­bi­tious and au­da­cious projects,” says Paul Gold­berger, for­mer ar­chi­tec­ture critic for The New Yorker. “If it is ever re­alised I think it would have to rank among their most stunning achieve­ments.”

The UAE Mastaba, which has been planned since 1977, mak­ing it the long­est run­ning un­al­tered project of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s part­ner­ship, will rest on sand, not wa­ter. Rather than the Lon­don Mastaba’s 7,506 bar­rels, it will be cov­ered in 410,000 — more than 50 times as many. It will be 150m high, mak­ing it the largest sculp­ture ever made, a few me­tres taller than the Great Pyra­mid of Giza and with a foot­print that, as Christo and his team like to tell you, would fit snugly into Saint Peter’s Square in the Vat­i­can. Christo has es­ti­mated that it will cost £300m. It will be Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s only per­ma­nent large-scale work.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude first vis­ited the UAE in 1979, af­ter they man­aged to se­cure per­mis­sion through the French for­eign min­is­ter, Louis de Guiringaud, him­self an art col­lec­tor. They had been look­ing for a site for their Mastaba idea, which they had tried and failed to get per­mis­sion to build in both Texas and Hol­land, and he sug­gested that the newly formed fed­er­a­tion, which had only been es­tab­lished in 1971, might be re­cep­tive. They have been on a charm of­fen­sive ever since: be­fore Jean­neClaude’s death, they made nu­mer­ous fur­ther trips to Abu Dhabi to­gether, talk­ing to rulers, dig­ni­taries, stu­dents and school chil­dren. In 2012, Christo es­tab­lished “The Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award” to nur­ture artis­tic tal­ent in the re­gion, and show gen­eral goodwill. He still vis­its sev­eral times a year, and is due to re­turn again in Novem­ber.

The de­ci­sion is cur­rently in the hands of the Abu Dhabi Gov­ern­ment. But Christo has men­tioned in the past that Sheikha Shamsa bint Ham­dan Al Nahyan, wife of Sheikh Ham­dan bin Zayed bin Sul­tan Al Nahyan, ruler of the western re­gion of Abu Dhabi, is par­tic­u­larly keen, hav­ing been greatly moved by a memorial film about Jeanne-Claude that Christo had made in 2010 (she is also the pa­tron of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award). Since 2013, Christo has em­ployed Al­bright Stone­bridge Group, a global strat­egy firm set up by for­mer US Sec­re­tary of State Madeleine Al­bright, to keep the ne­go­ti­a­tions tick­ing along. “All th­ese projects, the same thing: we need to find peo­ple who know th­ese peo­ple,” he says. “We’re no­body.”

Christo says he doesn’t want to dis­cuss its sta­tus, say­ing only that is “very ad­vanced,” be­cause “it is del­i­cate things. It is very volatile sit­u­a­tion. You know very well the Mid­dle East is very volatile, gen­er­ally.” (The Iran– Iraq War be­tween 1980 and 1988 was one of the con­tribut­ing fac­tors to the pro­tracted plan­ning.)

The Mastaba for the UAE is also an as­tound­ing un­der­tak­ing. It will take 30 months to build, and de­spite four decades of plan­ning, ne­go­ti­at­ing and in­gra­ti­at­ing, and ru­mours that a green light is im­mi­nent, it has still not been lit. In June of this year, Christo will turn 83. If he is go­ing to make his and Jeanne-Claude’s mas­ter­work hap­pen in his own life time, he can­not waste a minute.

Christo’s dogged pur­suit of his sin­gu­lar artis­tic im­pulses — all the glo­ri­ous-yet-fleet­ing suc­cesses, all the mad­den­ing, ag­o­nis­ing fail­ures — place him, in char­ac­ter, some­where be­tween Sisy­phus and Kubla Khan. So, too, have they placed him some­what out­side the con­ven­tional art world. He has never been rep­re­sented by a gallery — “when I was very young prob­a­bly I was happy to have gallery, but no­body was in­ter­ested in my stuff!” — and as a re­sult has found him­self in pos­ses­sion of a huge

num­ber of his own in­creas­ingly valu­able works, which he keeps in a stor­age fa­cil­ity in Man­hat­tan and a much larger one in Basel, Switzer­land.

He and Jeanne-Claude also de­vised an un­usu­ally in­no­va­tive fi­nan­cial model for their work. They set up CVJ Cor­po­ra­tion, a hold­ing com­pany which cre­ates sub­sidiary com­pa­nies for each project, based in the coun­try in which it is be­ing made. At the same time, they se­cure a line of standby credit from a bank, col­lat­er­alised against their col­lec­tion of their own works, which en­sures a smooth cash flow while CVJ pays for cur­rent projects by sell­ing smaller sculp­tures, sketches, paint­ings and even com­plete ex­hi­bi­tions to pri­vate col­lec­tors and in­sti­tu­tions. (To give an in­di­ca­tion of price, in late April a Christo paint­ing called “Dou­ble Shop Win­dow”, white paint on Plex­i­glas, a sin­gle one in an edi­tion of 65, sold at auc­tion at Christie’s in Am­s­ter­dam for €7,500.

They have never ac­cepted spon­sor­ship (while the Lon­don Mastaba is up — for an un­usu­ally long pe­riod of three months — there will be a con­cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion at the Ser­pen­tine Gallery about Christo and Jean­neClaude’s work with bar­rels which will be spon­sored by Bloomberg Phi­lan­thropies; Christo stresses that the Mastaba on the lake has re­ceived none of that fund­ing), nor charged en­try to see their works. It is a model that, Christo will proudly tell you, has be­come the sub­ject of a case study by Har­vard Busi­ness School, along­side oth­ers for Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. “I’m ed­u­cated Marx­ist from com­mu­nist Bul­garia es­cap­ing in 1957 to the west,” he says, “I’m us­ing cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem to the very end.”

Like­wise, he re­fuses to ac­knowl­edge the po­lit­i­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tions of his work. The use of oil bar­rels, he says, be­gan only be­cause he was at­tracted to their cylin­dri­cal shape: “I find it very sculp­tural form”; this de­spite the fact that he and Jeanne-Claude once blocked a Parisian street with oil bar­rels in protest at the con­struc­tion of the Ber­lin Wall. As far as he will tell you, the con­cep­tual im­pli­ca­tions of pil­ing up 410,000 of them in a coun­try that has the sev­enth-largest oil re­serves is nei­ther here nor there. (In a re­cent in­ter­view, the Bri­tish artist Cor­nelia Parker said: “That’s what I ad­mire about Christo and Jeanne-Claude, that they wrapped up the Re­ich­stag and then said it had nothing to do with pol­i­tics. Although it ob­vi­ously had.”)

Nor does he want to give any cre­dence to the idea that he is try­ing to build some­thing re­sem­bling a tomb, or that there might be some faintly gothic sig­nif­i­cance in the fact that it is also one of the last projects that he and Jeanne-Claude had been work­ing on to­gether, as though it were a lat­ter-day Taj Ma­hal. “The Mastaba is not a tomb like peo­ple say­ing,” he says, “it’s a much older name, com­ing from the first ur­ban civil­i­sa­tion in the world.” Which is true, although the one he has in mind is much closer to the di­men­sions of an Egyp­tian tomb than it is to a Me­sopotamian mud bench. (He also says, with imp­ish glee, that he has another project in the works that was con­ceived with Jeanne-Claude, “but I can­not tell you!”)

Four decades on he is still brim­ming with en­thu­si­asm about the Abu Dhabi Mastaba’s po­ten­tial im­pact: “a land­mark struc­ture”, as he de­scribes it, “that will be like this in­cred­i­ble Is­lamic mo­saic, you can’t be­lieve it what it will be. And colour. Beam­ing with colour. This will not re­late to any­thing you see in ar­chi­tec­ture to­day.” De­spite the al­most un­fath­omable ex­pense, a bill which he will again foot, he says that once it is built he will give it as a gift to the peo­ple of Abu Dhabi. “If they like, they will own.” Also: it will have no mean­ing. “Nothing is as big that is not build­ing. It is not any­thing, it is ab­so­lutely sculp­ture,” he says. “Ir­ra­tional, to­tally use­less, to­tally un­nec­es­sary. This is the most beau­ti­ful part.”

There is, of course, the ques­tion of whether or not the Abu Dhabi Mastaba, al­ready con­tin­u­ing with­out Jeanne-Claude — the pair fa­mously al­ways flew in sep­a­rate air­planes so that should one of them die in a crash, the other could still re­alise their work — could also go ahead with­out Christo. “There are some things that can be done with­out me. As you see, Mastaba, many projects can be done with­out me be­cause they al­ready de­signed.” And would he want that to hap­pen? “No, I like to see it!” he says. “I need to be…” he stops. “I love to be there.”

Even as he edges into his mid-Eight­ies, Christo’s gaze is fixed for­ward. “I am in quite good health, I can­not com­plain or any­thing.” He chooses not to re­flect. “Ret­ro­spec­tive will be done when I am dead,” he says. “I don’t like to spend one mo­ment of my life look­ing back­wards.” He likes to talk only about the quan­tifi­able — years, di­men­sions, costs — and tells me as our in­ter­view nears its end, “You can write any­thing philo­soph­i­cally, but please don’t mis­spell names, lo­ca­tions and places. Think I be very, very cross.”

Still, in­her­ent in the work are many cu­ri­ous para­doxes which pose ques­tions about the mind of their cre­ator. On the one hand, by be­ing fi­nan­cially self-suf­fi­cient, Christo has enor­mous mas­tery over his oeu­vre, and the free­dom to in­sti­gate projects of a scale and am­bi­tion of which most artists can only dream. On the other, he de­vises con­cepts that are, by their very na­ture, sub­ject to the in­tri­ca­cies of bu­reau­cratic struc­tures and the whims of the very pow­er­ful, mak­ing them, at times, mad­den­ingly be­yond his con­trol.

Each work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude can be in­ter­preted as a ges­ture of ex­treme demo­cratic gen­eros­ity: pro­vid­ing a spec­ta­cle to the masses, a source of won­der, for no ob­vi­ous gain other than aes­thetic plea­sure and the sat­is­fac­tion of hav­ing achieved them. It can also be seen as an act of au­da­cious and ruth­less ego­ism: an in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic artis­tic vi­sion im­posed upon a land­scape, ma­nip­u­lat­ing it in ways that should, per­haps, be be­yond hum­ble hu­man ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Christo doesn’t mind which you choose. He shrugs off at­tempts to put him in an artis­tic tra­di­tion. “I like to do, and that’s all. And I do it my way. That’s all.” At times, he seems al­most wil­fully sim­plis­tic when he ex­plains his artis­tic de­ci­sions, per­haps a re­ac­tion to the elit­ist ob­fus­ca­tion of tra­di­tional art spiel; when he an­nounced the Lon­don Mastaba at the start of this year, he ex­plained that the colours of the bar­rels — red and white stripes on the sides; red, blue and pur­ple on the ends — were cho­sen to re­flect the Union flag and Bri­tish roy­alty (or as he puts it to me, “Of course, the Majesty love the mauve”).

His work, their work, he says, is about the here and now, as it al­ways has been. “First thing you should know: we are work­ing with the real things,” Christo says, tak­ing off his glasses and rub­bing the bridge of his nose. “I do not know how to drive. I never learned to drive. I don’t like to talk on the tele­phone. I hate to talk and not see peo­ple. I do not un­der­stand any­thing of com­puter. I can­not un­der­stand any­thing that is vir­tual, not real. I like to have real kilo­me­tre, real wet, real dry, real wind, real fear, real joy. This al­most unstoppable plea­sure to have the sense. With th­ese very real things. Only when we’re still alive. Af­ter that will be gone.”

With any luck, in a few years’ time, per­haps even less, a com­pany call­ing itself Abu Dhabi Mastaba Ltd, or what­ever the Emi­rati equiv­a­lent might be, will set up camp in the desert out­side Abu Dhabi. There, sev­eral hun­dred engi­neers and builders, work­ing on a con­cept de­vised by en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sors at Ho­sei Univer­sity of Tokyo in 2007, will erect 10 concrete towers, stand­ing in two rows of five. Next, they will con­struct five flat sides and cover each in many thou­sands of oil bar­rels, their curved sur­faces painted in orange and yel­low stripes, with cir­cu­lar ends that erupt in a blaze of red li­lac, light pink, pale brown, ruby red, bright yel­low, cobalt blue, deep orange, pas­tel green, grass green and ivory. Once the bar­rels are in place, the sides will be raised on rails, up and over the 10 towers, in a sin­gle, mirac­u­lous feat of hy­draulics, like a ma­gi­cian lift­ing a limp linen nap­kin into solid form.

Then, fi­nally, af­ter many decades of per­sis­tence and per­sua­sion, many years of spec­u­la­tion, and many, many mil­lions of dol­lars, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “Mastaba (Project for the UAE)” will be made real. Hope­fully, a tiny fig­ure, dwarfed by the mag­ni­tude of his cre­ation, will be there to wit­ness it.

The Mastaba (Project for Lon­don, Hyde Park, Ser­pen­tine), will be on dis­play in Hyde Park, Lon­don, from 18 June to 23 Septem­ber. The con­cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion, Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Bar­rels and The Mastaba (1958–2018), will be on dis­play at the Ser­pen­tine Gallery, Lon­don, from 19 June to 9 Septem­ber; ser­pen­tine­gal­leries.org

Christo pho­tographed in his stu­dio in 2012 with a pre­lim­i­nary draw­ing for the Abu Dhabi Mastaba project

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s ‘Val­ley Cur­tain’ project in Ri­fle, Colorado, 1972

Christo and Jeanne-Claude show­case a piece of their new ‘wrapped-up’ art­work style, Rome, 1963

The cou­ple’s ‘Sur­rounded Is­lands’ in­stal­la­tion in Bis­cayne Bay, Florida, 1983

With over 1.2m vis­i­tors, ‘The Float­ing Piers’ on Lake Iseo, Lom­bardy, was Italy’s most pop­u­lar art event of 2016

In 1985, af­ter nine years of wait­ing for gov­ern­ment ap­proval, Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris in 41,800sq m of golden polyamide fab­ric

‘The Um­brel­las’ transpa­cific project of 1991 com­prised 1,760 yel­low para­sols placed across North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, above, in con­junc­tion with 1,340 blue equiv­a­lents in Ibaraki Pre­fec­ture, Ja­pan

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in 1982, search­ing the Abu Dhabi desert for lo­ca­tions to site their grand Mastaba project — ex­pected to be the largest sculp­ture in the world if built

A 2017 col­lage by Christo, demon­strat­ing the size and scale of The Mastaba

(Project for Lon­don, Hyde Park, Ser­pen­tine Lake) open­ing in the UK’s cap­i­tal in June

A 1979 scale model of the Abu Dhabi Mastaba (Project for United Arab Emi­rates)

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