A grain of truth: Anna Kurkova’s Dunescape

The artist and recipient of the 2017 Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award tells us how her glass installation was inspired by the sand dunes of the UAE.

Anna Kurkova’s Dunescape at NYUAD. The installation won the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award 2017. Delores Johnson / The National.
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Many artists have drawn inspiration from Abu Dhabi’s sweeping sand dunes. But when Anna Kurkova contemplated the desert, she saw an opportunity to make a statement about recycling and humanity’s duty of care for the environment.

The reward for her vision was the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award, a coveted art prize named after the renowned husband-and-wife artist team who helped to redefine the boundaries of contemporary art with their giant public installations.

Christo attended the unveiling of the winning work last week, as the 81-year-old does every year (Jeanne-Claude died in 2009). He has another reason to return – he is still seeking approval for an art project in the Liwa desert, The Mastaba, featuring 410,000 aluminium barrels, which he and his wife first envisioned almost 40 years ago.

Kurkova's Dunescape, which debuted at New York University Abu Dhabi, features three interconnected glass tanks. At first glance they appear to be filled with sand from the desert but look closer and you see it is tiny shards of glass.

“The piece reflects both the urban and desert landscape because glass is made from sand,” says Kurkova. “It goes full circle.

“I think it’s crucial to highlight the importance of recycling. I feel this connection towards nature, specifically here. When I look out and see the plants, the sand and the sky, I just feel this urge to keep it pristine.”

Kurkova, from Belarus, has spent the past six years studying art in Abu Dhabi. The 23-year-old was awarded a bachelor of arts degree in visual arts and economics at NYUAD and she is now an art history master’s student at Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi.

The inspiration for her prize-winning work came while out walking near her Saadiyat Island home. She was struck by the delicate balance between man and nature. “Walking through the golf course at the St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort as the sun is setting, I could see lots of gazelles,” she says.

“It’s amazing how the wilderness creeps in so close. This marriage between the urban landscape and the wild desert was something I decided to try to capture in my work, in its lines, shapes and spirit.”

Kurkova was one of 30 young artists who submitted a proposal for the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award, which is open to current and recent students in the UAE. It is bestowed under the patronage of Sheikha Shamsa bint Hamdan Al Nahyan, and presented by NYUAD in partnership with Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation.

“Since its inception five years ago, the award has become one of the most important art competitions in the region,” says Sheikh Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a member of the award’s selection committee.

The biggest challenge Kurkova faced in the three months she had to complete her project was installing the 300-kilogram structure outdoors, especially as the temperature started to rise.

“I have an amazing admiration for Christo at this point, because most of his work is outdoors, in all kinds of weather,” she says. “For me, it was quite a strain, as all the elements in my piece are quite heavy, especially the platform, due to the concrete blocks that hold it down. It’s so strong, it can withstand up to 150 kilometres-an-hour winds.”

Kurkova received US$5,000 (Dh18,364) towards the project materials and a further $10,000 to support her career. She plans to use the money to fund the final year of her studies.

The tanks were made from Flexiglass, and the shredded glass inside them from old yellow-tinted bottles, mixed with clear glass – “just to tone it down a little bit.”

Sourcing the glass proved to be enlightening.

“I used to wonder, where does all the rubbish that’s placed in recycling bins in the UAE actually go?” says Kurkova. “I didn’t know there were any glass-recycling factories in the UAE until I started researching. I visited this innovative recycling plant in Dubai, opened by a Sri Lankan man. It was very eye-opening to see the glass turn from a bottle with a metal top and paper labels, to this beautiful, finely shredded material. It’s an incredible transformation.”

Kurkova spent 10 hours pouring buckets of shredded glass into the tanks.

“It almost turned into an endurance piece,” she says. “The shredded glass was really difficult to work with because it’s so scratchy, fine and heavy. It’s sparkly and beautiful but when you pour it into a bucket, all of a sudden, you can’t lift it without another person’s help.”

The end result was worth all the hard work.

“I’m quite pleased, especially with the learning curve that I’ve gone through,” says Kurkova. “I feel like I’ve really grown as an artist. No art piece ever turns out quite the way you expected but it’s my baby and it’s beautiful.

"I had a chance to introduce the concept behind Dunescape to Christo, but also to learn from him about his and Jeanne-Claude's unique creative path, methods, and overall philosophy."

• Dunescape will be at NYUAD until May 11, then at Umm Al Emarat Park, Abu Dhabi, from May 18 to June 3.