Bulgarian-born US artist Christo at Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi Image Credit: Abdul Rahman/Gulf News

He has been unable to get approval for a majestic outdoor installation in Abu Dhabi, 30 years after his first attempt to do so. So perhaps it would be a better idea to raise awareness about the importance of such art pieces through a series of public discussions instead.

That was Christo's philosophy when he visited the capital for the tenth time since the mid-Seventies. It also marked his first solo trip to the UAE since his wife, Jeanne-Claude, passed away a year ago.

During the renowned environmental artist's ten-day visit in November, he spoke about all the projects he has conceived with his late wife, the challenges they faced to realise them and their undying hope to create "The Masteba", a towering structure made up of oil barrels, in the desert area between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.

"It's lovely being back here. Jeanne Claude would've loved to be back and see all the people who came to my discussions become so passionate about our work, not necessarily because of the projects themselves but because of the concept they represent. Hopefully, I [have been able] to inspire them, especially the university students, so that even if I am unable to receive official clearance, I can raise awareness through educational discussions about the importance of having such public artworks and help people be more accepting of such ideas," the 76-year-old said.

The Masteba would be a 150-metre-high, 225-metre-deep and 300-metre-wide sculpture made of approximately 410,000 horizontally stacked 55-gallon steel oil barrels in bright colours, secured to an inner structure. The estimated cost for the project ranges between $350 million and $500 million (Dh1,285 million and Dh1,835 million).

To study the feasibility of the project in a more in-depth manner, Christo and Jeanne Claude hired four independent engineering teams from Switzerland, the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan to prepare reports about The Masteba, which were then analysed by the German engineering firm Schlaich Bergermann und Partner, in Stuttgart.

"Abu Dhabi is the only location in the region we want to build The Masteba in. We have tried to build in other locations before, including Houston, Texas, in the late 1960s, but have never got permission. We then tried Holland on a smaller scale, but it didn't work," Christo said. "Purely by luck, we became friends with the French ambassador to the UAE in 1970 and he told us that the best chance for us to realise this project was to come here, because the country had just become independent, so there wasn't any bulky red tape."

But that was not to be, as the artistic duo realised when they laid out their plans to government representatives of the fledgling federation. But that did not deter them from returning to the country to not only speak to officials but also to scout for the perfect site for The Masteba. In 2007, its location was finalised and is said to be in an area about 170 kilometres south of Abu Dhabi, near the oasis of Liwa, between Al Janai and Hamim, near Bid Hifayyif.

Many stumbling blocks

"Unfortunately, the Gulf War in the Nineties forced us to stop pursuing the project. During that time, however, we were working on other projects that we had finally begun to receive permission for, including The Umbrellas, which we began planning for in 1984 [1,340 blue umbrellas in Ibaraki, Japan, and 1,760 yellow umbrellas in California were installed for 18 days] and the Wrapped Reichstag in Berlin [the seat of the German parliament was covered for 14 days]," said the Bulgarian-born US citizen.

The artists have constantly had to face legal wrangling and great delays before their projects could be realised, despite the fact that they provided all the financing, conducted in-depth studies and planned ahead so that everything moved smoothly.

"Because of the large scale and temporary nature of our works, Jeanne Claude and I always had a difficult time getting permission from the governments to generate these works. We create a gentle disturbance or inconvenience in people's lives while setting up the artworks, so we have to make sure they are fine with that, because we are borrowing public space," Christo explained. "We bring in small-scale models, show government officials the machinery and the safety measures we want to use and make sure we leave the surroundings exactly as we found them."

In the past 50 years, Christo and Jeanne Claude have completed 30 projects in various locations around the US and Europe. The latest project to be realised is Over the River, which will cover nearly 68 metres of the Colorado River in Arkansas. Approximately 10 kilometres of silvery, luminous fabric panels will be suspended high above the river in an area stretching between Salida and Cañon City in southern Colorado.

"We've been speaking to officials for more than 19 years about the project. When President Obama was elected, we were nervous about how his administration would be organised. But we were very happy when he announced that Ken Salazar [the former Colorado senator] was nominated to be Secretary of the Interior. We focused all our energies into getting permission for Over the River; we spent $11 million on it and finally got permission," Christo said.

Construction for the massive project is expected to begin in 2012 and will be open to the public for two weeks in August 2014. It is estimated to cost $50 million.

Projects reflective of life itself

"We've been asked why our works are always temporary. It's because we want them to reflect the ever-changing nature of life. Each project is like a child: It is born, it changes as it grows and then fades away," he said. But the artist is not worried about death, nor is he concerned about searching for a successor. "When I pass away, this will all end. No artist has ever had someone else take over their work. They forge a path for themselves or start something others use as inspiration. But I sill do hope to see The Masteba come to life," Christo said.