As momentum builds for Christo's long-sought after UAE-in-the-desert project, we accompany the artist as he visits schools around Abu Dhabi emirate.
Christo tours Western Region to talk about his project, The Mastaba
It is 8.30am and another sleepy if slightly chilly morning for pupils at Qatr Al Nada School, Madinat Zayed, in the UAE’s Western Region.
Yet at the front of their darkened classroom stands one of the most recognisable names in contemporary art. Gesticulating and rattling away in his distinctive Bulgarian-accented English, the artist Christo – renowned for wrapping Germany’s parliament building, the Reichstag, in more than 100,000 square metres of fabric in 1995 – is trying to make himself understood.
“Every moment of his or her life is lived as an artist,” says Christo, in response to a question from one of the 100 or so female students in attendance: “Is art a job or a hobby?”
The room turns to another pupil, one with a practical if humorously forthright question: “If you like fabric so much,” she asks, “why don’t you become a fashion designer?”
The National spent a day with the artist and his entourage earlier this month as they visited schools in the Western Region as part of a lecture tour hosted by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation. It was his second tour in the emirate in the past six months, having explained the ideas and inspiration behind his work at several colleges in the capital in November. But now Christo wants to extend this dialogue closer to where, he hopes, a project devised in the 1970s with his late wife and lifelong collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, may one day be sited.
He opts for the trusty old school slide projector, showing images of their work saturated in colour: The Gates, for instance, when after almost 30 years of failed applications, they managed to place 7,503 orange fabric gates throughout Central Park, New York, in 2005.
Since Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, there’s been a sense that Christo – now 76 – has been trying to see through the remaining projects that they still had in the pipeline. Over the River, an artwork that will see 9.5 kilometres of silvery, translucent panels of fabric suspended over the Arkansas River in 2014, is still waiting for its final permits.
The projector clicks through to an image of Jeanne-Claude frolicking on a Liwa dune when the UAE was less than a decade old. Born in Casablanca in Morocco while her military father was stationed there, she met Christo in Paris when he was a stateless refugee, fleeing communism in Bulgaria and struggling with French.
“We were born on the same month, the same day and the same hour, in 1935,” he tells the students. “Jeanne-Claude adored being back in the desert when we came to the Emirates; the landscape immediately connected with her childhood.”
The couple first came to the UAE in 1979, and set about sketching designs for a work based around the shape of the mastaba – an old Arabic word for the bench found moulded on to the front of mud houses in the region. The imagined work, pyramid-like at its base with a flat top, would be constructed by stacking 410,000 oil barrels out in the desert. The ends of each oil barrel would be brightly painted in primary colours.
“The visual effect of seeing all these colours will be like that of a mosaic,” he tells the students. “Or like thousands of tiny dots that together create a pointillist painting.”
The piece, if it goes ahead, will be accompanied by a visitor’s campus, and while no site has yet been determined for The Mastaba – given that it’s still very much seeking permission – Christo’s proposed area for the piece has been discussed as being close to Liwa Oasis.
But he’s not here looking for cash, and makes that a point of practice as he funds all projects himself through the sale of the preliminary sketches that go into creating the works. Instead it’s permission at an official level that the artist now needs.
Dr Mugheer Al Khaili, the director general of the Abu Dhabi Education Council, made it down to Christo’s talk at Qatr Al Nada School, and thanked the artist for speaking. There’s a sense among the staff that it’s good to see their pupils engaging with the arts. Children here stop formal art studies after the age of nine, according to Samiya Joumana Abdul Latif, the principal at Qatr Al Nada. “There’s a prestige for the students to have a world-famous artist come into their class,” she says. “It’s the first time we’ve had an artist come here and I think this visit will motivate them to pursue more information about the arts.”
Back on the road, and heading to the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) elsewhere in Madinat Zayed, we discuss Over the River, which has been making recent headlines in the US. The scale of the assembly and the expected influx of tourists to the Arkansas River once the piece is finished are points of contention in Colorado.
“A lot of the people living along that river have moved there to get away from the bustle of cities and of people,” says the artist. Many are worried that, if the project goes ahead, the swell of people will disturb this isolated feel. Those in favour of the project, however, see the vast tourism potential and flow of money into smaller communities along the river as benefits.
“We still need to talk to hundreds of people,” says Christo, back on the topic of The Mastaba, to the roomful of female students at HCT. “You, the Emiratis, are the only ones who can express the desire to have this project go ahead. That’s why we’re here, to talk to you. We can’t do this project if the people who will live with it don’t like it.”
Amal Al Mansouri, a 19-year-old student studying medical laboratory technology at HCT, tells us that while at first she’d expected a painter, once Christo began to explain the project it made sense. “Perhaps by 2030, it’ll be as famous as the pyramids in Egypt,” she says.
This affirmation is seconded by Afra Saif Al Hameli, another student and a photographer herself, who says she was surprised to hear that Christo was still waiting for permission. “In the last five years, we’ve started a new era in the Western Region,” she explains, referring to the founding of the Western Region Development Council in 2006, a body aiming to promote employment and better infrastructure in that part of the country. “I think it’s right to have this project here.”
Getting permission for The Mastaba may still have some way to go, but this education trip will be followed up with another in April, when Christo has been invited to return to HCT in Madinat Zayed and to speak to more colleges around Abu Dhabi about the technical aspects of producing his work as well as the commercial side of being an artist.
But the important thing here is that Christo never assumes. He talks about the project as if it were going ahead, but wants to move forward discussion of its realisation without getting ahead of himself.
Given that projects often span several decades of authorisation, bureaucracy and will-it-won’t-it meetings, he’s adept at hunkering down for the longview. But beginning with this education drive, and hoping that the ideas discussed filter through to the right people, is certainly appreciated and noted in this rather quieter part of the country.
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