Time to get angry about another gross display of wealth by the art world, all at the expense of the poor. According to The Guardian, Christo has plans to make the world’s largest sculpture from empty oil drums in Abu Dhabi, and now the project has the support of the Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a representative of the crown prince, his elder brother. A site near Liwa oasis has been approved.
The Mastaba will be made from nearly 410,000 oil barrels, and with estimated construction costs at $340m (£212m) it will be the most expensive artwork ever made. Aesthetically, the work perhaps has most in common with Michael Heizer’s City, a two kilometer long earth work that attempts to synthesize ancient monuments, Minimalism, and industrial technology. Here, the stacked barrels painted in colors inspired by the desert will resemble a jewel. “When the sun rises, the vertical wall will become almost full of gold,” Christo told The Observer.
I don’t love that so many resources are being dedicated to a sculpture when there an enormous number of people in Abu Dhabi are extremely poor, exploited workers. In 2009, Human Rights Watch released a report on Abu Dhabi’s treatment of migrant workers, documenting near slave labor conditions. Since then, Abu Dhabi has made significant reforms, but the conditions are still far from perfect. It’s worth noting that the Guggenheim, which is currently building a museum in the region, continues to be targeted for boycott by artists and prominent figures in the Middle Eastern art world, thanks to its use of migrant workers.
Christo, though, seems content to ignore all this. He says the oil barrels are not meant to be a comment on the UAE’s oil wealth, citing a work he made in Paris with the same material. Now, of course, that’s bullshit, and a quick look at his website demonstrates as much; he also has plans for a near identical Mastaba in Houston Texas, another oil rich region.
So why pretend the work doesn’t carry the meaning it was almost certainly meant to have? No one but Christo can answer that for sure, but it sure seems like a convenient way of avoiding the toll this project will take on people’s lives. Given the location and scope of this project, I’m not so sure its benefits will outweigh the costs.