'A place where he made great memories': Christo and his lasting impact on the UAE

'A place where he made great memories' Christo and his lasting impact on the UAE

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Christo, the artist known for creating monumental environmental art and wrapping famous landmarks in fabric and plastic, died in his home in New York on Sunday. He was 84 years old.

Born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff in Bulgaria in 1935, he escaped to Vienna from the Soviet Union in 1956 by hiding in a freight car carrying medical supplies. He moved to Paris in 1958, where he made a living by painting portraits and met Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, who became his wife.

Throughout their careers, the two collaborated in developing ambitious projects that often took decades to complete, yet were displayed only for weeks or months. In 1985, they draped Paris’s oldest bridge, the Pont Neuf, with fabric, and then undertook a similar project a decade later, this time wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin. After Jeanne-Claude’s death in 2009, Christo pressed on with their planned projects.

While their works spanned the globe, the two had a deep affinity for the UAE. "Myself and Jeanne-Claude began visiting here in 1979, and we have a specific relationship with this country that can never be replicated anywhere else," he told The National in 2016.

See more images of Christo in the UAE in the gallery below:

It was Abu Dhabi’s Liwa landscape, with its expansive golden dunes, that truly captured the duo's artistic imagination. Their first trip to the emirate was organised by the French government. Years earlier, they drew up plans to build a mastaba, or Mesopotamian mud bench, in Texas using oil barrels. The object fascinated Christo, who constructed a wall of 89 oil barrels on a narrow Parisian street in 1962 as a form of protest against the Berlin Wall.

Plans for a mastaba in the US changed after they were advised to journey to the newly formed UAE by friend and diplomat Louis de Guiringaud, who helped arrange their visit.

"After that is history," Christo said in an interview with The National in 2018. The trip would spark a lifelong dream for the couple. Their grandest project, though left unrealised so far, involved the creation of the world's largest sculpture in the Liwa desert – a colossal mastaba made from 410,000 oil barrels that would soar up to 150 metres high, taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza.

He kept coming back [to the UAE], partly because it's a place where he shared great memories with his wife

They began making numerous trips to Abu Dhabi, speaking to rulers and dignitaries about their plans. This was typical for their projects, given their scale, which called for the co-operation of government officials, landowners, workers and residents. Christo travelled to western parts of the UAE, including Al Dhafra and Madinat Zayed, for his research and to conduct art workshops.

Such was the couple’s aspiration for the Abu Dhabi mastaba that they had intended it as a permanent structure and outlined specific notes for its location and size. For them, the work had to be attuned to the natural environment. “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,” Christo said in a 2018 interview.

“He had a real bond with the UAE,” says Maya Allison, founding director of the art galleries and chief curator at New York University Abu Dhabi, who met the artist in 2012 and remembers him as “really gregarious” and “warm".

“This is a place that he and his wife loved very deeply. He kept coming back, partly because it’s a place where he shared great memories with her. They really connected with the people that they knew here. They had a very strong creative response to the landscape, especially to the deserts in the western region,” she adds.

In 2016, Christo completed a smaller-scale version of the mastaba in London's Hyde Park. Floating on the park's Serpentine Lake, The London Mastaba was comprised of 7,506 red and blue barrels. He said that he avoided using the colour "warm yellow" and "okra", as those would be reserved for the mastaba in Abu Dhabi.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, founder of Sharjah’s Barjeel Art Foundation, recalls meeting him in 2013. “He was always interested in regional art, and wanted to know more about different artworks and artists,” he says.

Al Qassemi adds that Christo’s hopes for completing the mastaba never waned. “He often spoke about the mastaba project … He told me that he was keen to complete it in honour of his late partner, Jeanne-Claude, and that he was trying to raise the funds for it himself, by selling sketches and drawings of the project,” he says.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi with the artist Christo in 2015. Courtesy Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi with the artist Christo in 2015. Courtesy Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi

Whether the mastaba will become a reality is unknown, though Christo and Jeanne-Claude's final project, L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped in Paris, is on course for late 2021.

Christo, however, did leave a great legacy for the country and its artistic community – the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award. Established in 2012, the award aims to nurture emerging artists in the UAE, particularly students and graduates with proposals for installation artworks.

“Because of his love for the UAE, he wanted to find a way to give to the country. The award became a very natural way to develop a more organic relationship with the art community in the UAE. He also founded the award partly in memory of his wife,” says Allison, who worked with him in producing the first edition.

“His creation of the award was a way of bringing artists together with their mentors in order to produce something that stretched them further than they might on their own,” she says, adding that for young artists, creating a major project affiliated with a prominent artist such as Christo can be extremely meaningful.

Presented by New York University Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation (Admaf), the award provides the winning artist with $10,000 (Dh36,7000) in order to produce his or her work, along with a gift of $5,000 (Dh18,350) from Christo himself to fund future projects. The artist also took two winners to London in 2018 to see and discuss his work.

“One thing that was really striking to me was that he would come to every single unveiling of the award … He would be excited to meet the students and ask them to tell him about the work. He engaged so actively with other artists and with the community,” Allison recalls. “There was really something loving about his presence and his enthusiasm for the positive energy of art.”

Additional reporting by Razmig Bedirian