Christo’s sketches of 'The Mastaba' are on show at Abu Dhabi Art

The initial drawings for the sculpture to be built in the Liwa desert visualise the ambitious project conceived by the artist in 1977

The late artist Christo hoped for one of his most ambitious projects to be built in Abu Dhabi. This week, the vision for the Abu Dhabi mastaba has arrived in the city that inspired it.

Colnaghi Gallery from London is presenting rare drawings by Christo, including his sketches for The Mastaba for Abu Dhabi Art, which runs from November 17 to 21 at Manarat Al Saadiyat.

The presentation Christo: Works on Paper at the gallery’s booth includes 11 drawings produced by the artist from the 1970s to the 2000s, such as the The Umbrellas, Japan-USA (1984-1991) and Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida (1980-1983).

A total of two large coloured sketches and two smaller pieces from 1978 to 1979 are available for The Mastaba, Project for United Arab Emirates (1977) at the fair. Prices for the works range from $150,000 to $1.5 million, and the gallery says that a number of drawings have already been reserved.

Previously, the gallery had shown Christo’s earlier creations from 1958 to 1968, including nine sculptures and works on paper. Back then, the artist had already begun wrapping found objects – from a Vespa and road signs to chairs and magazines. These were part of a presentation at Frieze Masters in London in October.

Before the sprawling installations and the monumental wrapping of landmarks that defined Christo’s practice, his ideas existed on paper. The Bulgarian artist, who died in New York last year at the age of 84, created numerous detailed sketches of the environmental art that he wanted to produce.

These preparatory drawings were not only treated as studies, but artworks themselves. Christo, along with his wife and artistic collaborator Jeanne-Claude, often sold them to raise money for their grand projects that involved large-scale installations.

Their grandest plan, however, is still unrealised. Christo and Jeanne-Claude conceived the idea of The Mastaba in 1977. The artists intended for the mastaba, or mud bench, to be built from around 400,000 oil barrels stacked in the Liwa desert in Abu Dhabi. At a height of up to 150 metres, it would be taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza.

The couple began making trips to Abu Dhabi during this period, meeting with rulers to discuss their plans. As part of his research into the natural environment and how his work could respond to it, Christo ventured to Al Dhafra and Madinat Zayed to understand the landscape.

In a 2018 interview with The National, he explained that “the project has never been planned for the coastline. It is designed for inland, many hours from Abu Dhabi, with the great desert and the great dunes.”

His drawings reveal the various calculations he made for his works, from the slope and angles of the stacked barrels, to the weight and colour of each component.

The Mastaba is one of two projects that the artist authorised to be produced after his death, says Victoria Golembiovskaya, executive director of Colnaghi Gallery, which works directly with the Christo and Jeanne-Claude estate.

The other is L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, for which the Paris arch was draped in silvery blue plastic curtains from mid-September to early October.

Unlike the project for the Arc de Triomphe, however, The Mastaba in Abu Dhabi is meant to be a permanent structure. If completed, it would be the largest sculpture in the world.

By bringing the sketches for this work to Abu Dhabi, Colnaghi hopes that it will cultivate interest in making it into a reality. “All proceeds from selling the preparatory drawings will go towards the realisation of Christo’s projects. When he passed away, he left a will to his estate stating that they have to continue working on them,” Golembiovskaya says.

“We’re bringing these preparatory drawings to bring awareness to Christo’s projects and also to meet locals who are interested in helping realise them,” she explains.

Earlier this year, Sotheby’s held auctions for nearly 400 lots from Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art collection, which brought in a total of $11.2m in sales. The proceeds will benefit the artists’ estate, which plans to establish a foundation.

In July, Vladimir Yavachev, Christo’s nephew and project director for the Paris and Abu Dhabi initiatives, said his team have completed the research for the engineering and location of the sculpture.

The chosen site is in Gharbia, near the oasis of Liwa, about 160 kilometres south of Abu Dhabi city. The estate is now waiting for the government’s permission to build.

More information is available at abudhabiart.ae

Updated: November 16th 2021, 11:11 AM