LONDON — What will the future think of the world when they look back on the marks we have left? Will it be with the same reverence with which we gaze on the Acropolis hill and the Parthenon that sits upon it as a symbol of civilization and democracy or something less forthcoming?
Judging from the news that Christo is set to build the world’s largest permanent sculpture in Abu Dhabi, it seems we are about to be immortalized by something we know to be — though we would rather not admit it — the essence of our times: Oil.
The Mastaba, which has been estimated at a cool $340 million, will be built from nearly 400,000 oil barrels forming the shape of a flat-topped pyramid planned to be taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza. And although Christo has denied that the use of oil barrels comments at all on the UAE’s oil wealth (citing his 1960s work “Iron Curtain” when he blocked off a Paris street with oil drums), it is not just oil that is being commemorated here.
Take Anish Kapoor’s 2012 London Olympics monstrosity, the ArcelorMittal Orbit viewing tower; a kind of flaccid, unwittingly ironic version of Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International” designed in 1920 yet never realized. The fact that Kapoor’s red, steel tower is named after “the world’s leading integrated steel and mining company,” who bankrolled the entire project after a meeting between the company’s CEO Lakshmi Mittal and London Mayor Boris Johnson in the bathrooms of the 2009 Davos Summit, pretty much says it all.
In Christo and Kapoor’s monuments, we see a world that does not need to pretend that it is built on the ideals of civilization, democracy and liberty anymore. Rather, it can now embrace the reality that is built on expendable — and therefore speculative — resources that are controlled by an elitist few. In some ways, it is the elegance of Christo’s statement that is the most bewitching. And so what? The design says. This is who we are.
That Christo is making the world’s biggest sculpture in the deserts of the UAE is too perfect, this being the emirate where most of the UAE’s oil wealth is (or some might counter, was) concentrated. It was Abu Dhabi that paid for Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, because Dubai could not pay for the construction’s completion. In fact, in recent years, the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) region has become the place for big art. Last year in Doha, for instance, major solo exhibitions of Murakami, Bourgeois and Cai Guo-Qiang, as well as a major unveiling of a huge Richard Serra sculpture, took place practically at the same time.
Ancient or modern, monumental structures have to be paid for by someone, usually by history’s winners and losers, easily distinguishable by those doing the labor and those doing the commissioning. In China, for instance, where it is reported that a plan to build the world’s tallest skyscraper, Sky City, in ninety days is now underway, it is no doubt the Chinese laborers who will be the losers: Victims of their own government, like everyone else in the world these days, relatively speaking.
Even in America, where some might insist, “At least we have democracy,” such assumptions are valid only to a degree. Consider the wars that have been waged in the name of that black gold now commemorated in a monument being built in a desert city where the Guggenheim and New York University have all set up camp. Globally speaking, this monument is for all of us.
In China, they say the developers of Sky City aim to work according to a schedule of five floors per day, as if this were a race, which in many ways, it is. Thinking about the resources that go into building and maintaining modern day Colossuses such as this, anywhere in the world, it is apt to think that the oil barrels with which Christo’s pyramid will be constructed are going to be empty.
In the end, what all of the monumental constructions of the world have in common is an image of progress, civilization, wealth, and power; things that produce the knowledge these structures so often come to represent. Ideals that seem so innocent when we gaze at the Parthenon romanticizing about its associations with democracy, while ignoring the fact that ancient Athens was a democracy predicated on institutionalized elitism, where only citizens could vote and teachers and artists were considered slaves.
But who knows? Maybe the future will look back on us with the same kind of romance. Or maybe they will see a time when the guardians of society — its wealthy and its politicians — never had so much money and so little sense. They might remember that we had oil: Whatever that is, thinking about what we did — or didn’t do — when it started to run out.