At 81 years old, Christo vibrates with energy. He is at the Fondation Maeght for the launch of the next step in his greatest project, Mastaba. 1,076 oil barrels piled in the ancient pyramidical form aren’t exactly what you would expect to find in the beautiful Sert courtyard, but Mastaba rises as if in defiance, its bright primary colours dazzling against the azure sky and dominating the space.
The word Mastaba refers to the form of an ancient burial mound, a shape that the Christo has been considering for long time - since 1973 to be precise - when he and his late wife Jeanne-Claude first visited Abu Dhabi.
The Mastaba project, which is explored in the current exhibition, aims to build the largest physical sculpture ever made. The sculpture in this Saint Paul de Vence courtyard is a mere model, a trial. The final work is planned to be the same size as Bellini’s courtyard and will be the only permanent, lasting work that this artistic collaboration has ever produced. It is fair to say that modesty is not Christo’s issue. As with all of his projects, the process by which the artist is attempting to bring the project to life is an intrinsic part of the art work. Mastaba - whether achieved or not - will be the lasting testament, his greatest work. Christo is keen to move it forwards as forcefully as he can.
When asked about the symbolism of oil cans in the current petrol crisis, Christo is clear that there is none. His work just occupies space on its own terms, requiring no explanation and seeking no justification. I tried to put him in some kind of context: “Is there a relationship with Andy Warhol’s soup cans? An allusion to Duchamp and the ‘readymade’ series? Is Christo considered to be an interventionist?” Oliver Kappelin, the curator and the director of the Fondation Maeght, is quick to point out that Christo does not fall into any school or artistic genre. He is a one off.
The artist’s practice is incredible. Christo draws the project in progress every day, in different forms, from different angles. The images change and evolve. This work is motivated by a love of drawing and the proceeds from the sale of the works fund the final project. However, you can’t help but wonder if this is part of the artist’s personal process, making the projects come to life, giving the ideas energy by drawing them, and thinking about them on a daily basis. Christo, who was raised as a communist, is fast to dispel any kind of ‘mumbo jumbo’, but an assistant did describe him as the ‘ultimate manifester’. Curiously, he never draws the works when they are completed, each drawing is a step, but the final work does not need to be visualised: “Because now it actually exists.”
Christo’s life reads like a romantic novel – a story of impressive risk and remarkable tenacity. The man is almost unstoppable. The wrapping of the Reichstag was rejected three times in parliament before it was finally accepted after 24 years in 1995. The Pont Neuf project also took considerable effort with two rejections before coming to fruition in 1985.
I can see now why he thinks it is time to make Mastaba happen.
Born in Bulgaria to a fabric factory owner and a secretary at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia, Christo Vladimirov Javacheff was already beginning to develop his creative talents at the age of six. Now, he says he had the prescience to know that he was going to be an artist even then. As a young adult, he took the brave decision to escape to Vienna during the Prague uprising.
“I was 21 years old,” he says. “I was an artist so I had to get to Paris, of course. It was the dream.”
He left everything behind, washing dishes on the way as he tried to make his way in the capital of the art world. It was in Paris that he also met his wife Jeanne-Claude and, with their coupling, a determined and remarkable creative partnership was born that was to last until Jeanne-Claude’s death in 2009. If Christo is able to complete their Mastaba project, the union will continue forever.
You can visit the exhibition until 27th November 2016. The Fondation Maeght is open from 10am to 7pm throughout September and then from 10am to 6pm for the rest of the autumn season. Tickets are 15 euros for adults with reduced rates for groups and children.