On an unusually hot day in London’s Hyde Park, crowds have gathered at the Serpentine lake around a small, white-haired man, who is talking non-stop and gesticulating at a giant floating structure behind him.
“Is that Christo?” a woman whispers to me. It is indeed Bulgarian-born environmental artist Christo. And visitors who came to see his new installation – the London Mastaba – and its accompanying exhibition on Sunday afternoon were unexpectedly treated to a tour by the creator himself.
The 83-year-old, who alongside his late wife is responsible for wrapping up some of the world’s most famous landmarks, is in the park to meet the winners of the annual Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award, which supports emerging Emirati artists.
This year's winners are Maram Kassab and Mariam Ayoub, architecture students from Abu Dhabi University. Christo has flown them to the UK capital to meet him in person and see his latest artwork.
By the time he has finished walking around the exhibition, which included an extended pit stop to show the award winners plans for the Abu Dhabi Mastaba, Christo has amassed quite a lot of followers.
But he seems to be oblivious to the commotion that he has caused and doesn’t flinch when one member of the public tries to move the award winners aside to place himself next to Christo. The man in question has to be politely asked to move back by a member of Christo’s entourage.
“Christo’s not like most 83-year-olds,” one of his team says, as we struggle to keep up with the energetic octogenarian’s pace as he marches from the gallery down to the lake, talking the whole time about the Mastaba, his reasons behind the choice of colours and how he made sure it was positioned so as not to obscure the sight of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament to the south-east.
“You’d be that fit if you ate a bulb of garlic every morning,” she adds. Pressing the point further, I discover Christo is a firm believer in the health benefits of a bulb a day, which is said to improve cholesterol levels, reduce blood pressure and prevent the onset of dementia.
It is clear that whatever he is doing appears to be working – after stopping for pictures with fans, he manages to speed off back to the gallery before they have had a chance to put away their smartphones.
Need to know: Christo
- Born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff in Bulgaria on June 13, 1935, Christo escaped life behind the Iron Curtain to arrive in the West in 1957 as a stateless refugee. He is now thought to be one of the world's wealthiest artists, with his fortune made through selling his work, including sketches and drawings of his public projects.
- He met his wife Jeanne-Claude in Paris in 1958. Jeanne-Claude, who was born in Morocco, on the same day as Christo, would become his lifelong collaborator until her death in 2009. They remained famously in love and supportive of each other throughout their marriage.
- The couple’s most prominent early artwork was in the French capital in 1962, when they closed off a narrow street with a wall of 89 oil barrels in protest at the building of the Berlin Wall.
- Jeanne-Claude and Christo's other major works include wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris as well as The Gates, in Central Park, New York, and Running Fence in California.
- Until 1994, all of their works were credited to Christo only, but they were then reattributed to Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
- The pair’s love affair with the UAE began in 1979 when they visited Abu Dhabi on a trip organised by the French government.
- It was in Abu Dhabi that they planned to build a Mastaba ("mud bench" in Arabic) made from 410,000 oil barrels in the Liwa Desert.
- Almost 40 years on, the project has yet to win approval, but Christo currently has created a much smaller, floating Mastaba in London’s Hyde Park