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World's biggest sculpture to be built in Abu Dhabi

Belgian-born American artist Christo has gained permission and funding to build a 150-metre sculpture entirely out of oil drums in the heart of the gulf desert

Abu Dhabi is soon to be the recipient of the world’s biggest and most expensive sculpture. For over thirty years, Belgian-born American artist Christo has been planning and designing ‘The Mastaba’; a pyramid-like structure made entirely from stacked, painted oil barrels, designed to tower above the sand dunes of the Gulf desert. When completed, the sculpture will break through several records in one blow; at 150 metres high, it’s not much shorter than St. Mary’s Axe, and at an estimated $340, it’s the most expensive art work ever to be built, the same price as fourteen of Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skulls.

The Mastaba is joining several other super-scale art projects currently underway in Abu Dhabi; two of the world’s most prestigious museums, the Louvre and the Guggenheim, are building new branches in the Emirate state. Each of these projects, with their global brands and seemingly bottomless budgets, are part of Abu Dhabi’s new cultural strategy to re-define itself as an oasis of world-class contemporary art. Given this context, there is room for scepticism about the Mastaba – is it set to be an artistic masterpiece or a glorified tourist attraction?

It should come as no surprise that it is Christo who has taken on this project. His artistic career rests on making works which initially seem mildly delusional in the sheer scale of their ambition. His most famous work is still his 1995 ‘Wrapped Reichstag’, the iconic gesture which covered Berlin’s former parliamentary headquarters in grey fabric for two weeks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it often takes decades of bureaucratic wrangling for Christo’s art works to come to fruition. He spent eighteen years negotiating governmental permission for the Reichstag work, and twenty-six years in discussion with New York authorities before he was allowed to festoon Central Park with saffron banners. The Mastaba, too, has long been gestating as a concept. It was originally conceived in 1977 by Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude.

'Wrapped Reichstag', 1995. (Photo by Wolfgang Kumm/AFP/Getty Images)

The Mastaba, Christo emphasises, is not a reference to Egyptian pyramids, it takes its name from an ancient Arabic geometric form inspired by a resting bench for travellers through the desert.  The trapezoid structure – with two vertical walls and two slanting ones, was deliberately selected by Christo and his wife for the harmonising effect it would have on the desert landscape. It is built at a specific angle to catch the light of the sun as it rises, and as each individual barrel will be painted, Christo claims the effect will be that the sun-lit wall will appear “almost full of gold."

The Mastaba is, in many ways, emblematic of the Emirates art strategy. Its record-breaking size means is reminiscent of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper, the world’s tallest building. Its record-breaking price is increasingly typical of its alpha-collectors; last year the Art Newspaper listed Qatar as the world's biggest buyer in the contemporary art market. Ten years ago, it would have been impossible to predict that so many highly significant contemporary art projects would be unveiling in the UAE, but right now, with its shifting sands and big spenders, Abu Dhabi is set on forging a new identity for itself through art, and the Mastaba, depending on the success and critical reception of the project – could well make or break that.





Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.



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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis