Before he died last year the artist Christo had not one but two dreams: to wrap the Arc de Triomphe and to build a massive structure out of oil drums in the desert sands of Abu Dhabi. L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped was completed last month and today visitors to Paris will have one last chance to see the arch swathed in silver blue fabric before it is dismantled tomorrow.
Once he has overseen the monument’s restoration to its original glory in time for Armistice commemorations next month, Christo’s nephew Vladimir Yavachev will turn his attention east to create the last monumental project that – if completed – will be the artist’s only permanent large-scale sculpture and the largest artwork in the world.
Originally conceived by Christo and his wife and artistic partner Jeanne-Claude in 1977, the Abu Dhabi Mastaba is a simple but massive structure constructed from 410,000 multicoloured 55-gallon steel barrels.
Detailed drawings by Christo show the barrels arranged in a geometric form inspired by the ancient mastabas – or “bench of mud” for weary desert travellers – with two vertical sides, two slanted sides and a flat top originating from the first urban civilisations of Mesopotamia. The coloured barrel ends will create a mosaic that echoes Islamic designs.
The mastaba will be 150m high – 12m taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt and higher than St Paul’s Cathedral – 300m long and 225m wide and sited in the Liwa desert 160km south of Abu Dhabi in a region boasting some of the world’s highest sand dunes. Speaking to the Observer in 2012, Christo outlined his vision: “When the sun rises, the vertical wall will become almost full of gold.”
He said he wanted to create a sculpture “deeply rooted” in the great tradition of Islamic architecture: “When Louis XIV was building that kitschy castle Versailles, the greatest architecture in the Middle East had incredible simplicity.” The project was originally delayed by the Iran-Iraq war, but Christo revived it after being inspired by Abu Dhabi’s bid to turn itself into a cultural oasis in the Middle East and, notably, the Louvre Museum’s decision to open an outpost there.
Christo estimated the Abu Dhabi Mastaba would take up to 30 months to build and would create hundreds of jobs. But human rights groups are already concerned about what they see as the emirate state using cultural projects to whitewash its violations against migrant workers. The United Arab Emirates state announced in June that it was pumping $6bn into cultural and creative projects in the next five years to move its economy from oil to tourism.
Human Rights Watch said the Louvre Abu Dhabi, officially inaugurated by French president Emmanuel Macron in 2017, was “tainted” and had been “accomplished at the cost of human suffering, in a country whose rulers appear to still widely despise human rights and suppress any critical voice”.
There are also concerns over the treatment of workers on the long delayed Guggenheim Museum’s Abu Dhabi satellite museum, designed by Frank Gehry, that was meant to open in 2012 but is now not expected to be completed before 2025.
Born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff in Bulgaria, the artist studied in Sofia but defected in 1957, stowing away on a train from Prague to Vienna and on via Geneva to Paris, where he met Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, hispartner until her death in 2009. The couple moved to New York in 1964, spending their first three years there as illegal immigrants.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude began working with steel oil barrels in Paris in the 1950s as the material was cheap. From 1958 onwards, many of the couple’s artworks were created with barrels, wrapped and unwrapped. Photos of Christo in the storeroom in the basement of Jeanne-Claude’s Paris apartment in 1960 show him surrounded by barrel sculptures. Among his most famous works were wrapping the entire Reichstag in Berlin in 1995 and the Pont-Neuf in Paris in 1985.
Yavachev who oversaw the Arc de Triomphe wrapping, told the Observer: “It was Christo’s wish to finish these two projects. Now it is my mission to get the Mastaba for Abu Dhabi.
“I’m feeling very optimistic that we can do this. It may take some time – three, five, 10, even 15 years – but the vision is there and we will do it.”
Yavachev said the Mastaba had been designed and drawn in detail by Christo and is ready to go once permission has been from the Abu Dhabi authorities: “This will be the only permanent large scale Christo artwork – well, as permanent as anything on this planet – and it will be the last so it is very symbolic.”