November 16th, 2011

Christo: 'I will not do any piece of art that has a purpose'

Almost 40 years since he first came to the UAE, the Bulgarian artist Christo has returned to Abu Dhabi to transmit some of the wisdom learnt since then to a new generation of students.

Following a public event hosted by New York University Abu Dhabi at the Intercontinental, and a closed lecture at the Higher College of Technology earlier this week, Christo will speak at Zayed University today. In addition to outlining an artistic practice, he is in town to explain a project in the UAE he's been seeking to realise since the 1970s.

Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude were a true artistic partnership. Devoted to each other and to their art, even taking separate planes so that in the event of disaster the surviving spouse could continue their work, they enacted some of the world's most poetic and powerful public art pieces.

Before Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, their works were "gentle disturbances", as Christo refers to them, into the normality of cities and landscapes. They famously wrapped the Reichstag, Berlin's political headquarters, in 100,000 square metres of fabric. They placed 7,503 orange fabric gates in Central Park during a bleak New York winter in 2005, and swathed an entire section of Australian coastline in erosion-control mesh.

But Christo and Jeanne-Claude arrived into a young, independent UAE in 1979 at the invitation of the French ambassador to the country at that time. They had an idea for a sculpture near Liwa Oasis that would see 410,000 empty oil barrels arranged into the shape of a 350 metre tall sculpture, The Mastaba, which Christo says was inspired by the mud bench with a flat top and slanted walls, once found moulded into the fronts of houses across the Arab world.

"The cylindrical ends of all these barrels are painted in an incredible variety of colours," the artist explains. "From far away, The Mastaba would appear like a huge abstract painting, or a mosaic."

The artists made several trips after 1979, the most recent being in 2007, to investigate how best to navigate permission protocol for this project. So far, The Mastaba exists only in sketches and scale models.

But patience is the hallmark of their practice. "In the past 50 years, we've realised 22 projects and failed to get permission for 37 more," says Christo, having received news last week that a project to suspend silvery, luminous panels over 62 kilometres of the Arkansas River in 2014 has finally received approval from the US Department of the Interior. "We're probably the only artists in the world that make people think before a work exists."

They waited more than 30 years for permission to wrap the Reichstag. The Gates, in Central Park, only came to fruition with the arrival of Michael Bloomberg as mayor. It's all, he says, a matter of "circumstance and luck" as to whether a work comes into being.

The artists have never accepted funds and grants to make any public piece happen. Through a savvy business model, the preparatory sketches and lithographs that outline a forthcoming project, done by Christo's own hand, are exhibited and sold via curators internationally. All of the money from this goes into their public artworks. "I will not lose one millimetre of my freedom to do the thing that I do," says Christo. "This is why we try to have resources of money - so as not to sacrifice the aesthetics of our projects."

This discipline, he says, came from escaping Bulgaria's encroaching communism in the 1950s. "I will not do any piece of art that has a purpose. I want to create pure poetry and not propaganda. I left a communist country to have that irrational freedom of the artist."

Christo, it would seem, is not in town looking for money for The Mastaba. Instead, he's here to introduce himself and a vision of public art to a country much-changed since 1979.

"The next stage for this project? Nobody knows. We are open to a lot of suggestions and we don't know what we'll discover over the next few weeks or months.

"It's all about the chance of circumstance. But we consider each project like an expedition with its tensions, angst, joy, certainties and uncertainties."

Now 76, Christo notes that navigating such expeditions has become even more difficult alone. "At every stage of a project, we're always thinking, 'What would Jeanne-Claude say?'"

Christopher Lord, The National, November 16, 2011