- Monumental Oil
Nearly fourteen feet high by thirteen feet wide and composed entirely of unaltered oil barrels, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's 1962 Wall of Oil Barrels—The Iron Curtain blocked eight hours of June traffic in Paris's Latin Quarter. The twenty-seventh was a Wednesday. Designed to "cut all communication" between Rue Bonaparte and Rue de Seine, the two streets running adjacent to the blockaded Rue Visconti, The Iron Curtain cut a narrow but definitive line in a Paris increasingly and historically punctuated by blockages. "Enfin son principe," the artists note, "peut a'étendre à tout un quartier, voir à une cité entiere" (its principle can be extended to a whole area or an entire city). Eleven months earlier, the other, more famous Iron Curtain inaugurated two decades of urban and political partitioning. The latter, built with a brittle concrete and rebar common to the urban infrastructure it split in two, protected a specific type of circulation from another named Communism. The former, only days earlier used to transport oil to the adjacent lot of Christo's Gentilly studio, blocked, in "principle," circulation as such. Elsewhere in the city, students, refugees, and dissidents demonstrated against the French occupation of Algeria. Six days later, French president Charles de Gaulle declared Algerian independence, the day after the first Walmart opened in Arkansas.
French oil extraction in Algeria's southeastern Hassi Messaoud alone hit close to 60 million barrels only five years earlier. Time magazine touted Compagnie Française des Pétroles' expansion into the Algerian desert as the "Miracle of the Sahara" that promised to "cure France's chronic foreign-trade deficit." The French oilfield at Hassi Messaoud promised an output of 300 million tons, approximately "15 times France's yearly petrol consumption." Etienne Hirsch, head of the Fourth Republic's economic modernization program, warned that the war against Algerian independence had become a literal roadblock, whereas France's economic prosperity meant first Algerian roads and labour. "Moslem rebel gangs," Time reported, blocked vital routes to the Mediterranean, an implication that "without peace in Algeria, the Miracle of the Sahara could easily become a mirage." When Christo made his submission for the project's permit in 1961, the price of oil per barrel hovered near $2.85 (USD).
In 1971, OPEC restructured the oil economy, and the Miracle of the Sahara became a provisional mirage for the French economy as Algeria's much sought after resource was nationalized. More recently, however, Christo (and Jeanne-Claude until her death in 2009) has found a new desert wherein miracles and mirages call for a "principle" altogether different than in 1962. First conceived in 1977 but delayed until 2007 due to regional unrest, Jeanne-Claude and Christo's The Mastaba is imagined as a 492-foot-high by 984-foot-wide stack of 410,000 oil barrels arranged in a trapezoid some 160 kilometers south of Abu Dhabi. Its colorful façade, unlike The Iron Curtain, will itself be painted in such a way as to "give a constantly changing visual experience according to the time of the day and the quality of the light." Approaching spectators, so the claim goes, will first experience The Mastaba as a mirage closely resembling a giant undulation of sand, and then as a solid monument, if not to, then certainly of the primary unit by which oil flows globally in its refined form: oil barrels.
In the first instance, the generalization of The Iron Curtain's "principle" would refer to something like its form, or more specifically the rendering of the literal fuel of a combustible economy out into the urban blockage of the same economy. In its radically remote geographical placement, however, The [End Page 5] Mastaba blocks nothing. Indeed, its spectacularly singular character comes as much from its sheer size as from its contiguity with the Arabian Desert. Despite the obvious fact that a sea of oil sits beneath The Mastaba, its connection to the location of the substance itself is both obvious and incidental. On...