Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the Matsaba Project for the Abu Dhabi UAE

Review by A. Moret 

When I was five years old my parents packed a picnic lunch, loaded my sister and I in the backseat of our white Jeep Cherokee and drove an eternal drive 60 miles north, away from Los Angeles.  “We’re going to see the umbrellas,” my mom said, “they’re pieces of art.”
We arrived and parked along the 18-mile stretch of the Tejon Pass, a sea of yellow fabric in the glow of the California sun.  Identical and outstretched, yellow umbrellas speckled the winding terrain and hillsides. Eating from my Dick Tracy lunch box, I told myself The Umbrellas were important. My presence there, that moment in 1991, was magical. One day, those umbrellas would be important.
After reading Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the Mastaba Project for the Abu Dhabi UAE I am thankful to my parents for setting out on adventure that sunny day in 1991, and to Jeanne-Claude and Christo who patiently (though unknowingly) waited for my understanding of art to mature.  The Umbrellas is my earliest memory of experiencing artwork on such an incredible scale, 1,760 yellow umbrellas measuring 19 feet and 8 inches tall to be precise, and the impression of that day is forever imprinted in my mind’s eye.
Jeanne-Claude and Christo familiarly executed large-scale art installations across the globe.  Beginning with Surrounded Islands in 1983 through, The Gates in 2005, the duo has reimagined public spaces so that they can be experienced in a wholly new and unexpected way, intended for a massive audience.
The Mastaba however is a distinctive departure from previous installations because it’s not ephemeral; rather it’s Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s first permanent public work. The Mastaba shape is indigenous to ancient Arabia: a symmetrical shape composed of two slanted walls and two vertical walls with a flat top, traditionally with a mud bench placed outside of these desert houses for travelers to rest and receive water from the owner. Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s The Mastaba serves no functional purpose rather it reflects the area and planned site of the sculpture in Al Gharbia, 100 miles south of Abu Dhabi.  When the artists were asked why they were building this sculpture, Jeanne-Claude replied “we only do works of joy and beauty.”
Christo began working with oil barrels after his arrival in Paris in 1958 and started experimenting with stacking barrels in a mastaba shape in 1961 for his first exhibition in Cologne, Germany. Arranging the barrels like a sculptor manipulates wood or clay, the barrels possessed an inherent individuality due to their color and age, but could also be arranged to form blocks of color and create patterns.
In the 1970s, Jeanne-Claude and Christo became committed to realizing a large-scale mastaba in the desert of Abu Dhabi and have been drafting preparatory drawings, and visiting the site since 1977.  The Mastaba will consist of 410,000 55-gallon steel oil barrels, and 190,000 barrels will not be visible.  The vertical wall will feature a systematic arrangement of ten colors: bright yellow, light ivory, deep orange, ruby red, light pink, red lilac, cobalt blue, grass green, pastel green and pale brown and the various colors will create a pointillist effect against the golden sand.
Taschen presents a gorgeous book filled with glossy pages of Christo’s meticulous drawings dated from 1977 to 2012, and photographs by Wolfgang Volz documenting the couple’s visit to Abu Dhabi and meeting with engineers and government officials. Written in English and Arabic, the text meets in the middle of the book as the Western language reads left to right and the Eastern language reads right to left.  There is a beautiful symmetry created in the convergence of the two languages.
When it’s construction is complete, The Mastaba will be the largest sculpture in the world, measuring at 492 feet high, 738 feet deep at 60 degree slanted walls, 984 feet at the vertical and a top surface measuring 416 feet wide.  It will dwarf the Great Pyramid of Giza and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and will be nearly as tall as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Eiffel Tower. Conceived in 1977, the structure was inspired by Christo’s early work with oil barrels, which began after his arrival in Paris in 1958. The book is filled with his renderings dated from 1977 to 2012 of the sculpture calculating it’s height, location, scale, and the exact number of colored barrels used to construct it’s awesome form. The book is a documentation of a tremendous “work in progress” of the strange potential of common objects and art to transform a landscape with simple and powerful gestures.
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Matthias Koddenberg, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the Matsaba Project for the Abu Dhabi UAE (Taschen 2012)
Images: Cover and interior images from Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the Matsaba Project for the Abu Dhabi UAE