One of the most celebrated artists working today, Christo is widely known for the public art projects that he and his wife Jeanne-Claude collaboratively created from the 1960s until her death in 2009. The subject of a survey of works with cans and oil barrels at the Serpentine Galleries this past summer that included a giant sculpture—The London Mastaba—floating in the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, Christo recently spoke to artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster about the scope of the exhibition and his plans for the even bigger Mastaba for Abu Dhabi, which could become a new wonder of the world.

The earliest works in the Serpentine show are paint cans that you altered by wrapping them in canvas or by painting them. Why did you choose these readymade materials to make art?

I wanted to make contemporary still lives. I made several of them using cans wrapped with fabric and painted with lacquer and bottles filled with pigment in the late-1950s, first in Geneva and then in Paris. I used these small cans because I didn’t have a large place to work. I called them Inventory, as a reference to having things that had to be moved from one place to another. I grouped them in arrangements on shelves, but left it open as to how they could be displayed by the gallery or collector.

Did you see these works as hybrid pieces that dealt with both painting and sculpture?

Yes, I was still a young artist when I made these pieces. I hadn’t really decided what kind of art I wanted to make, but I had studied sculpture, painting, architecture and decorative arts at the National Academy of Arts in Bulgaria.

Did you see a link between your cans and the Pop Art of Jasper John’s beer cans and coffee can with brushes, Nouveau Realism with Arman’s accumulations of paint tubes and brushes and the Arte Povera artists use of everyday materials in this time?

Of course, I was familiar with the movements of the time, but my use of cans preceded these artists and styles.

How did you make the leap from the cans to using oil barrels?

I got a bigger studio space in Gentilly and started using larger cans, which were of course the barrels. In 1961 I had a solo show of the cans and barrels in Cologne at a gallery that was close to the harbour. Like all galleries, it was closed two days a week so we thought to make something that people could see outside of the gallery. Jeanne-Claude and I got the harbour master to let us use some of the barrels stored in the yard and made our first public artwork there.

What motivated you to create Iron Curtain, a wall of oil barrels in the Rue Visconti in Paris in 1962?

At the time I was having my show in Cologne the Berlin Wall was being built. I was a political refugee with no nationality. I left Germany because I was scared of the Soviets and ran back to Paris, where I started working on the idea of a wall of stacked barrels blocking the Rue Visconti. I tried to get permission to do it in 1961, but couldn’t. In June of 1962 I did it illegally.

Was it a political statement?

All of our work is what it is. It involves the obstruction of public space. I was a political refugee and fearful of being returned to Bulgaria. It was who I was. All of my work is what I am and the work is the work. It’s not a video or photograph. It’s the real thing.

How did you assemble it and what was the response?

It was a real barricade. France was involved in the Algerian War and there were protests in Paris. When you look at the photographs of the stacked barrels you can see protest writings on each side of the street, from two different factions. The writing wasn’t done by me. It was real.

In 1968 you conceived a project a project for the Museum of Modern Art in New York that would block West 53 Street with 800 barrels for a day, but the project was realized. How did this idea develop and what happened to it?

When we did the Iron Curtain in Paris I met a New York dealer who happened to speak French, the famous art dealer Leo Castelli. He invited me to be in a group show and in 1964 we came to New York for it and stayed at the Chelsea Hotel, where I made the work. We came back to New York later that year as tourists for three months, but ending up staying three years as illegal aliens. I found a loft building in SoHo and rented a space, and now I own the whole building. I didn’t speak any English, but Bill Rubin, MoMA’s head curator, spoke French and knew about my Iron Curtain piece. He invited me to be in the museum’s 1968 group exhibition Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage. We proposed a temporary Iron Curtain installation blocking the street outside the museum, but we couldn’t get permission. A scale model was later exhibited was in a small solo show of my MoMA proposals that included a model for the wrapped packaged museum building, which is still in MoMA’s collection.

How did the idea for a mastaba of oil barrels originate?

When we were planning the project with MoMA we became friends with two of the museum’s trustees, John and Dominque Menil, who were from Houston. They saw the mastaba proposal that we made for the MoMA show and thought we could do something like it in Texas, but we couldn’t find the right location. We made the first actual mastaba for an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in the fall of 1968. ICA invited us to show some of the MoMA proposals and we built a mastaba with 1240 oil barrels in the hall of the institute’s entrance.

Is The London Mastaba the most public version, the most prominent one to date?

Yes, it’s not only the most public version, but one of its most incredible qualities is that it has the same proportions as the one we designed for Abu Dhabi in the 1970s. The proportions are 2-3-4, with 2 being the height, 3 is the length of the tilting wall and 4 is the length of the vertical wall. Much later, while we were living and working and having an exhibition in Abu Dhabi, we learned that this shaped structure was an ancient form. It was the geometric form for a bench set outside houses in Mesopotamia. We kept the proportions of the original drawings that I made for the Mastaba for Abu Dhabi in all of the proposals for it from that time on, but we were never able to build it in these proportions until the London project.

Why did you decide to float it in the Serpentine Lake?

That’s an interesting story. In 1967, a collector living outside of Chicago had a property on Lake Michigan and we proposed a floating mastaba in the lake. It’s interesting how this project has evolved. Having the chance to create the floating mastaba for the Serpentine Lake finally gave us the opportunity to build the mastaba in the proportion of the Mastaba for Abu Dhabi.

Do you have a site in mind for the Abu Dhabi project?

If we get permission and everything goes well, the site will be determined. The project is not fixed. We need 16 square kilometres that’s not disturbed. We are interested in the area called the Empty Quarter, which is one of the most beautiful sand deserts in the world. It all takes time, but we would very much like to realize this project.

How big would it be and long would it take to construct it?

It’s 150 meters high by 225 deep and 300 meters wide, with 410,000 barrels—or about two city blocks for the entire pavilion. It will be bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. We discovered that there is a historic precedent for the Mastaba for Abu Dhabi. The footprint is exactly the same dimensions as Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, which has also 2-3-4 proportions.

Like all of our projects it would take about two and a half to three and a half years, with most of the work would being done offsite. Unlike The London Mastaba, which is temporary, the Mastaba for Abu Dhabi will stay. It will be permanent, like the Eiffel Tower. That’s why it has to be built in the right way, and it will have to be maintained—that’s an essential part of the project.

Do you need to find a sponsor or will you finance the project yourself?

The project will be financed by me. I make drawings and sketches and make scale models that are sold to finance our projects. I don’t have studio assistants. I do everything myself. Our work is very saleable. Jeanne-Claude and I were the biggest collectors of our work and I still am. I am constantly buying back my work from auction houses and private sales. We have an organization that takes care of all of it. We have a corporation to build our work, to buy back our work and to sell it. We have a holding company and each time we build a work we create a subsidiary, like the one in London for the Serpentine project. It pays the bills for the project and the money comes from the sale of the work for the project.

You don’t take any corporate sponsorship?

No, we work with international banks to get lines of credit against the value of our work. The Harvard School of Business teaches students how Christo and Jeanne-Claude get their projects built.

Do you see the Mastaba for Abu Dhabi as art or architecture? Is it a sculpture or a monument?

That’s a very good question. When we wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin in 1995, the first writer that the New York Times sent was Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic, because the Reichstag is a building. Our projects are like the building of highways or bridges—there are many facets and dimensions. Jean-Claude used to say, ‘You should read our project proposal to understand what’s there.’ For example, in 50 years we’ve only received permission for 23 projects out of 47 projects. For architects that’s quite natural. How many architects never build a proposed building? It’s like building a new airport, where some people are for it and some are against it. There are thousands of pages of writings both for and against art of ours that does not even exist. Not many artists have writing against paintings they haven’t yet painted.

Do you see it as having a relationship to Arabic or Islamic culture, other than oil and bench?

I am an American citizen, but I’m also an artist. I celebrate the culture of every country where our projects happen. I’m not Japanese, but I do projects in Japan. I’m not German, but we’ve done projects in Germany. I’ve done projects in Switzerland, Italy and the United States. We didn’t arrive in the Middle East when it became fashionable. We went 40 years ago when no one was going there.

You’re 83 now. Do you hope to realize it while you are still here?

I need to be present. When we went to Australia to wrap the coastline it took a tremendous amount of planning to wrap the rocks on the coast. I needed to be there. It was the same with the wrapped trees in Switzerland. I needed to make an advance study of how it should be done. I needed to be there to make sure the pruning of the trees was done right. The projects cannot be done without me.

What needs to happen? Do you need to get government approval or to secure the land?

It’s a very complex issue. You can’t just knock on the door and say I’d like to do a project. You need to get advice and build relationships with people at many levels of communities and governments. We need to be introduced to certain groups. Sometimes we need to hire specialists related to the projects, like for Surrounded Islands in Miami, where state and national permits were needed. New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped make The Gates possible and we paid the city millions of dollars to have the project in Central Park. Abu Dhabi is a kingdom. We have Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, helping with the project. It takes the right people to make these projects succeed.

Photo: Wolfgang Volz