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.