When will Christo’s 40-year old Mastaba happen?

The artist, known for his monumental sculptural projects, makes major push for his desert project in the UAE


The artist Christo tells The Art Newspaper at Art Dubai that his long awaited project in the desert, The Mastaba, is still on track. For 40 years, Christo has been planning the structure. Comprising 410,000 multi-coloured aluminium barrels, it would be the largest sculpture in the world, and, unlike many of Christo’s projects, permanent. “My projects are about the real things,” says Christo, “The real wind. The real wet. The real dry. The real things. Not photographs. I don’t know how to use a computer. Not flat surface. Not propaganda. But the real things.”

Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, 81, is in the UAE to double down on his efforts to bring his long-awaited project to fruition and is brimming with renewed zeal for the structure, which he first conceived for the Abu Dhabi site with his late wife and creative collaborator, Jeanne-Claude.

Christo says that preparation will take three years, but once done, the colossal structure itself can then be elevated in a matter of weeks, and will stand at 150 meters high, 225 meters deep (at the 60 degree slanted walls) and 300 meters wide at the vertical walls. It will consist of 410,000 multi-coloured aluminium barrels, which will recall Islamic geometric patterns, when viewed from a distance, set in an ascending form reaching a plateau of 126.8 meters wide. “It is not sculpture only. That place will be a reserve, that surface of land, nothing else will be built. No house, no hotel, no skyscraper. It’s not only the thing, its the landscape itself, that is all the work of art. It isn’t like a Pyramid of Cheops.”

The Mastaba will be 150 meters (492 feet) high, 225 meters (738 feet) deep at the 60 degree slanted walls and 300 meters (984 feet) wide at the vertical walls. The couple selected a site for the work after reconnaissance trips to the region, south of Abu Dhabi. “We love that area, that site. The logistics of the project will require roads, a resting area, we will do this simultaneously. 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude in the 1980s. Courtesy Wolfgang Volz

In the 1960s, Christo and Jeanne-Claude had planned a smaller version of The Mastaba to be sited between Houston and Galveston in the US, with the encouragement of the De Menil Foundation. The pair ultimately abandoned the project due to planning regulations. But thanks to a suggestion by the then Foreign Minister Louis De Guiringaud – a Christo collector - in Valéry Giscard d'Estaing’s administration during the late 1970s, the artists set their sights on the desert outside Abu Dhabi, where they travelled for the first time in 1979, under the auspices of the French Foreign Ministry. “We loved that area,” he says “We found that site, we wanted to have this space for us.”

They visited another seven or eight times (all the while pursuing projects around the world, such as the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin, the Umbrellas project in Japan and the Gates project in New York City). After decades of planning, consulting with construction, architects and researchers and authorities in the Emirates, the final go ahead may be tantalisingly close. 

“Physically, the project can start tomorrow, but nothing has been decided yet,” says Christo. “It is a process. But I’m very open minded! It’s possible I can start another project tomorrow…”