Christo to concentrate on Abu Dhabi?

The announcement by Christo that he’s cancelled Over the River installation he has been pushing for 20 years should mean some progress on his Mastaba project in Abu Dhabi for the world’s largest sculpture.

What you could have won: sketch for Over the River

“After pursuing Over The River project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado, for 20 years and going through 5 years of legal arguments, I no longer wish to wait on the outcome,” said the artist in an official statement.

Over the River has already cost some $15 million to develop, but at least Christo will be saving the estimated $35m it needed to complete it.Over the River would have been impressive – Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s vision, originally specified back in 1992, included a total of 9.5km of silvery, luminous fabric panels to be suspended clear of and high above the water in eight distinct areas along a 69km stretch of the Arkansas River between Cañon City and Salida in south-central Colorado.

The project had approval from the Bureau of Land Management but had run into serious opposition from environmentalists. Christo, who was born in Bulgaria but became an American citizen in 1973, told the New York Times that he’d basically stopped pushing the project as a protest against the election of Donald Trump: “I use my own money and my own work and my own plans because I like to be totally free. And here now, the federal government is our landlord. They own the land. I can’t do a project that benefits this landlord.”

Drawing for The Mastaba, 1977

Now Christo says: “I have decided to devote all of my energy, time and resources into the realization of The Mastaba project for Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, which Jeanne-Claude and I conceived 40 years ago”.

That too should be impressive. It would be the largest sculpture in the world, made from 410,000 multi-coloured barrels arranged as a mosaic of bright sparkling colours.

The Mastaba will be 150m high, 225m deep at the 60o-slanted walls, and 300m wide at the vertical walls. Its top will be a horizontal plateau of 126.8m by 225m.

Perhaps more important than its scale, The Mastaba will be Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s only permanent large-scale work. Everything else they have done has been explicitly temporary.

The proposed site is near Liwa in Al Gharbia (Western Region), somewhere near the Qasr Al Sarab resort according to the fairly imprecise maps on the website. Christo and Jeanne-Claude selected the colours and the positioning of the steel barrels back in 1979, the year of their first visit to the Emirate. They’re using standard 55-gallon oil drums, though the artists are at pains to point out that there’s no particular connection with the oil business (it’s just a complete coincidence that modern Abu Dhabi is based on the stuff).

Christo and Jeanne-Claude scouting locations in October 2007

The structural design process was interesting. In 2007 and 2008, Christo and Jeanne-Claude gave feasibility study contracts to four university engineering departments; they worked independently – indeed, apparently they weren’t even aware of the others’ participation – and a German engineering firm was then hired to assess the reports. The proposal from Hosei University in Tokyo was judged to be the best bet in terms both of innovation and technical feasibility.

More preliminary investment saw Christo commissioning Pricewaterhouse Coopers in 2012 to assess the social and economic benefits of The Mastaba. We haven’t been able to find out what PwC concluded, but no doubt they included the direct value of tourism and the soft-power value of having a giant artwork within the Emirate. Christo invests his own money in his work, funding all costs associated with development, permits, manufacturing, installation and removal; to date, Christo has never accepted viewing fees, sponsorships or outside investments of any kind.

Christo is due to speak at the New York Times Art for Tomorrow event in Doha on 12 March and magpie understands he is coming on to the UAE after that. Hopefully there will be an official go-ahead, in which case we can expect to see The Mastaba pretty soon – the Hosei design is expected to need less than a week of build time. The current estimated completion date is 2020 or 2021, though that was set when the Arkansas River project was ongoing.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude were a couple for more than 50 years until Jeanne-Claude’s death in 2009; together they pioneered the nouveau réalisme environmental art movement.

Their connection to the UAE was formalised by the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award in 2013, now presented annually by NYU Abu Dhabi in partnership with ADMAF. It was established to nurture artistic talent in the UAE, and the Award goes to the creation of an artwork that, in the spirit of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work, can be publicly exhibited and enjoyed.


Why Mastaba? This one is a bit puzzling. Mastaba is an Arabic term for a stone bench, typically one built on to the wall of a house. But the word is most frequently associated with Ancient Egypt, where a mastaba (meaning “house for eternity” or “eternal house”) is a type of tomb in the form of a flat-roofed, rectangular structure with inward sloping sides … which is Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s design for the (non-Egyptian) Liwa desert.

“The Mastaba is an ancient and familiar shape to the people of the region,” says the descriptive blurb with what sounds like a degree of licence.

Mastabas were gradually replaced by pyramids for notable interments, though mastabas continued to be used for non-royals for several hundred years.


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