“All of my life, and Jeanne-Claude’s, has happened through serendipity,” says 83-year-old artist Christo, as he tells the story of how he first came to Abu Dhabi with his wife in 1979.
It was on that trip that a lifelong ambition for the environmental artists was fermented – to build what would be the world’s largest sculpture, known as a mastaba, in the Liwa desert. It would rise 150 metres and span 300 metres along its vertical walls.
In the years that followed, Bulgarian-born Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude put plenty of energy into trying to see their Abu Dhabi mastaba realised, but it has yet to happen.
Although Jeanne-Claude – Christo's collaborator and wife, who was born on the same day as him – died in 2009, the artist is unwilling to let go of their mastaba dream. Almost four decades after his first visit to Abu Dhabi, a much smaller-scale, floating, temporary mastaba has been built on the Serpentine lake in London's Hyde Park. The London mastaba is made out of 7,506 barrels – the proposed one for Abu Dhabi would be crafted from 410,000 barrels.
Completing the London mastaba has not diminished Christo's passion for the Abu Dhabi project. For a start, the two are "completely different", he tells The National at an exhibition of his and Jeanne-Claude's artworks at the Serpentine Gallery. On the official Christo site, the UK work is called The London Mastaba, while the proposed Abu Dhabi piece is referred to definitively as just The Mastaba.
“In Mastaba Abu Dhabi there are many hues of warm yellow, okra. Yellow is the principle colour,” he says, talking about the project as if it is already built. “But there’s no yellow in that mastaba,” he smiles, gesturing toward the blue-and-red floating structure on the lake outside.
The word mastaba means “mud bench” in Arabic, a place for sitting and conversation originating from the historical region of Mesopotamia. Jeanne-Claude and Christo came across the form before the first Abu Dhabi visit and made unrealised plans to build mastabas on Lake Michigan and Texas.
Using oil barrels was in part because of Christo's fascination with "the little humble tin can". "It's a very physical object which is extremely resourceful to do a temporary sculpture installation like the barricade of barrels we did in Paris in 1962," he explains. But while the enthusiasm to pursue the American mastabas petered out, their commitment to the Middle Eastern project remained.
On Abu Dhabi in 1979
The pair’s arrival in Abu Dhabi came through a series of what Christo calls serendipitous events, which began when they met Louis de Guiringaud in 1972, who was then serving as France’s representative to the United Nations.
De Guiringuad, who had purchased some of Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s work, had seen plans for a mastaba in Texas and advised them to visit the newly formed UAE. But it wasn’t until De Guiringuad was promoted to a senior government position later on in the 1970s that the opportunity for the trip arose.
“There was no chance to go to Abu Dhabi until our friend was selected as foreign secretary for France during the presidency of Giscard d'Estaing,” Christo explains. “It was then the French government organised our arrival in Abu Dhabi in 1979, and after that is history.”
In that visit and in many subsequent trips, the pair worked out their vision for the grand-scale mastaba, which would be 50 times the size of the London project.
“You can see a photo of me and Jeanne-Claude in the exhibition collecting sand in Abu Dhabi to use for the model,” he says. “We knew exactly how we wanted to build the project in the Middle East.”
The $350 million 'bench' would be a 'new Eiffel Tower' for the world
Despite the passing years, as a sprightly octogenarian who could outpace many men half his age, Christo remains optimistic about the project. “I am 83 years old, I hope to do the project before I die and I hope Abu Dhabi will try to do it,” he says, adding that the mastaba could still be completed after his death.
Despite the obvious connection, the 250-litre steel barrels are not those used in the oil industry.
Some of his and Jeanne-Claude's previous works took a long time to come to fruition. Although none of them beat the ongoing waiting time for the Abu Dhabi mastaba, The Gates in New York and Wrapped Reichstag in Berlin still took 26 years and 24 years of negotiations respectively.
An important principle for Christo is that he self-funds all of his works, and the Abu Dhabi project and its planning is no different. “Like everything, it is entirely financed by me. Nobody has spent one cent for me in Abu Dhabi in 40 years. It is always my money,” he says.
And how much exactly would the mammoth structure, which would be 150 metres high and 330 metres wide, cost? "It would cost around $350 million [Dh1.29 billion]," says Christo, who is believed to be one of the wealthiest artists in the world.
“It is almost like to build a new Eiffel Tower, and if it happens, it will be a landmark for the 21st century.”
Where in Liwa would it be?
Unlike all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s other artworks, which are dismantled after a period of time, the Abu Dhabi mastaba is intended as a permanent structure. As well as being unmoving about the size of the project, Christo is also very specific on its location. The mastaba must not be near the coast and must stand alone so the viewer can see nothing but sand beside it.
“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,” he says. “Also it cannot be built in any place in the desert. It is to have 16 square kilometres around the project to be reserved.”
But Christo is keen to press that, if he were granted permission, the Liwa Desert would not be a construction site for decades. He is “ready to go tomorrow”.
“If they give it the go ahead it can be built in three-and-a-half years because we spent millions of dollars engineering that project.
“It will be like nothing that is in the world today, revolutionary.”