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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award win not without bumps for Sharjah students

Despite having just a week to revise their proposal and last-minute rehearsals, a team from the American University of Sharjah has won the 2016 Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award.
Students from the American University of Sharjah present their proposal at NYUAD to build a pavilion inspired by the traditional Islamic architecture that can be found along the Silk Road. From left, Khalid Khairi, Ghanem Younes and Mohammad Abualhuda. Irene Garcia Leon / The National
Students from the American University of Sharjah present their proposal at NYUAD to build a pavilion inspired by the traditional Islamic architecture that can be found along the Silk Road. From left, Khalid Khairi, Ghanem Younes and Mohammad Abualhuda. Irene Garcia Leon / The National

Despite having just a week to revise their proposal and last-minute rehearsals, a team from the American University of Sharjah has won the 2016 Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award.

The winners of the 2016 Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award may have been inspired by the Silk Road, but their journey to the competition’s final was anything but smooth.

It is a selection process that blends the scrutiny of an X-Factor appearance with the intensity of a client pitch.

“This is an extracurricular activity, so there was a lot of work and there were a lot of all-nighters,” says Marcus Farr, an assistant professor of architecture at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) who was mentor to the winning team.

As one of five teams to have been shortlisted from an initial field of 55 entrants, those under Mr Farr’s guidance – winners Mohammad Abualhuda, Khalid Khairi and Ghanem Younes – had less than a week to turn a month’s work into a brief, 20-minute presentation.

They had to convince the award’s selection panel that their proposal, a pavilion inspired by the traditional Islamic architecture that can be found along the Silk Road, was worthy of the annual US$15,000 (Dh55,080) prize.

Awarded since 2013 for outdoor artworks, the prize aims to nurture young artistic talent across the UAE.

It was named after the artists who helped to redefine the boundaries of contemporary art by wrapping up the Reichstag in Berlin, Paris’s Pont Neuf bridge, and 11 islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay.

Christo has also made no secret of his desire to build a project called the Mastaba, a giant, pyramid-like monument composed of 410,000 steel barrels amid the dunes of Abu Dhabi’s Western Region.

“Christo has a long-standing relationship with Abu Dhabi,” says Emily Doherty, the Award’s director and chairwoman of its selection committee.

“He first came to the emirate in 1979 and more recently he recognised that there was a huge move towards art education and the cultural sector locally, and so under his auspices, we set up the award with the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (Admaf) and NYUAD (New York University Abu Dhabi).

“The award is really designed to target young people here who have an aspiration to a career in the arts. We wanted to set up something that would give them the experience of producing a work of art from commission all the way through to exhibition.”

The winner receives $5,000 to produce their work, but Christo also personally gives them $10,000 to support them in their career. “The winners can use the money to store the work that they’ve made, for further study, to support an internship or to pay for travel,” Mrs Doherty says. “The idea is that the support doesn’t finish when the exhibition of their work ends.”

The five finalists in this year’s award – two teams each from the AUS and NYUAD, and an entry from Zayed University – will also be given a chance to view Christo’s The Floating Piers, his first major project in a decade, on Lake Iseo in Italy next year.

The installation will be 4.5 kilometres of floating pontoons wrapped in golden fabric, which will cross the lake and completely envelop a small island.

“It will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Mrs Doherty says. “It will only last for two weeks but Christo is going to pay for the five shortlisted entrants to go and see the work.”

The final phase of judging procedure for the 2016 prize took place at the NYUAD Institute on Sunday before a panel that included Hoda Al Khamis Kanoo, the founder of Admaf, Fabio Piano, professor of biology and provost of NYUAD, and Emirati designer Azza Al Qubaisi, all permanent members of the Award’s selection committee.

They were joined by a guest judge, Deborah Najar, a director of the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation for Contemporary Art in Dubai.

“Because I’ve been judging the award since the beginning, I’ve seen the competition evolve,” says Ms Al Qubaisi, an artist and jewellery designer who trained in Britain.

“At first the entries were mainly by individuals but recently we’ve had more applications from teams, and the entries have also become much more ambitious in terms of their scale, their materials and their complexity.

“In the early years we saw lots of concepts that contained technology and we thought that they were a little too ambitious, but now our sense of what is possible has changed as well.”

Each of the shortlisted finalists pushed the boundaries in their own way.

Jiwon Shin, an NYUAD undergraduate student of Visual Arts and Computer Science, built a working prototype of an interactive, computer-controlled installation called Wall||Window, while a team from AUS developed a complex interactive sculpture, Social Translator, built from hydraulic pistons and laser-cut plywood that was part-see-saw, part-bench.

For the winning team from AUS, the phone call announcing their victory came as a complete surprise, as a week earlier they had, like all the finalists, received a comprehensive list of comments from the judging panel.

“We received an email on 7 December saying we had been shortlisted and that we were invited to present our submission to the jury team, but with that there were five or six bullet points that required feedback,” Mr Farr explains.

“We had a week to tweak the design, to make a model and to re-render and redraw the design, but this was on top of our regular commitments with classes and studio projects.”

The students changed their design and reduced it in size to convince the selection panel that it could be built on time and within the budget.

Ms Al Qubaisi was surprised by the extent of these changes.

“They impressed me today, I was overwhelmed,” she says. “We didn’t expect the team to have developed their ideas so much in just one week.”

Unfortunately for the AUS team, the amount of work they put into their final presentation left little time for rehearsal. “We had to practise our presentation in the car all the way from Sharjah,” says Mr Khairi, 22, a final-year architecture student at AUS. “It took us a lot of time to get the presentation sorted so it was only once the presentation was finished and we were in the car that we finally had time to rehearse.”

The hard work, however, does not stop with the team’s success in winning the award, and the group now has until early April to deliver on their concept by building an artwork that will tour the country.

“Now we go straight into a production schedule and we’ll work with the team from the NYUAD Gallery to set that up,” Mrs Doherty says. “The gallery will now provide support to the winners and their mentor to produce the work. We’ll give them the money but we’ll also support them throughout so that there is proper, professional gallery support to make sure they are on track, to support them technically, and to answer any questions they may have.”

For Mr Khairi and Mr Younes, this means balancing the demands of their final months at university with the task of building their pavilion. “When we got the call to tell us we were winners we were shocked and extremely surprised,” Mr Younes admits.

“It was news that was hard to absorb.”

nleech@thenational.ae