NYUAD Sophomore Hosted in Germany by Renowned Artist Christo

Nikolai Kozak, Class of 2015 spends a weekend with Christo, attending events and activities centered around Christo's installation, the Big Air Package.

Late last month, after the Christo Award finalists were announced and the winning artwork had made its way from NYU Abu Dhabi's Downtown Campus to the Maraya Art Park in Sharjah, NYUAD sophomore Nikolai Kozak — the recipient of an Honorable Award — travelled to Oberhausen, Germany, at the request of Christo himself. There, he spent a weekend with the renowned artist, attending events and activities centered around Christo's latest installation, the Big Air Package. Salaam recently caught up with Kozak to discuss the Christo Award and his art-filled weekend in Germany.

Could you describe your Honorable Award-winning work? 

Inadvertent Solace is a large-scale public art installation based on projection technology. The idea is to reclaim an abandoned building in the city and project onto its entire facade, creating the illusion that the building has been cut in half and making the bodies that inhabit its domestic spaces visible. The project draws heavily from archival footage and media collected from all social and economic strata of the emirates. Put succinctly, Inadvertent Solace creates a public artistic census of the emirates. The project has gained a lot of traction and, thanks to the support of a series of institutions, it will be installed in Abu Dhabi in January 2014. It's a huge project and I'm extremely excited to see the concept become a reality.

How did the trip to Germany come about?

While receiving the Honorable Award, Christo announced he had a surprise for the finalists — that he would fund a trip to Oberhausen for us to attend the opening of the Big Air Package, his latest installation in collaboration with Wolfgang Volz.

Where did you stay? For how long?

We stayed in Oberhausen, a small industrial town on the outskirts of Cologne. We stayed there for a weekend. It was a very welcome relief to step out into the freezing cold as we made our daily walk to the Gasometer (the gas tank-turned-gallery where the Big Air Package was installed).

What was on your itinerary?

Everything was centered around the Big Air Package. The first day we got a preview of the installation and attended a packed opening ceremony along with German dignitaries and media. That night we were invited for dinner along with 80 of Christo's friends; at that point you're thrown into the pool without really knowing how to swim. Age differences sort of whither away when you become part of the small family that surrounds Christo and it proved to be an amazing evening. The next day we were given a tour of the exhibition and installation by Christo himself. It was strange walking around while cameras constantly flashed around you — I felt like the unwitting recipient of unrequited fame. Following the tour was a quick lunch with Christo and Wolfgang (a sort of last supper) and then we were off to a modern art museum where Christo's art historian, Matthias Koddenberg, gave us a guided tour. It all went by incredibly quickly, but it felt like I was there for years.

What are your thoughts on the Big Air Package?

The Big Air Package is a religious experience. It's an enormous self-supporting structure; entirely white, 90 meters tall, and about 50 meters wide. Inside the space your eye gets lost and you begin to lose perception of time and space.

Did Christo share any of his future projects?

Yes, we spoke a lot about the Mastaba, Christo's project for Abu Dhabi. It's going to go down in history as the largest public art installation in the world. The number of coincidences that have occurred for this to be happening in the city in which I chose to study halfway around the world from where I was born boggles my mind.

What was it like to spend a weekend with Christo?

I had already met Christo — we were introduced during the award process — so seeing him again in Germany was like seeing an old friend. I've grown very fond of the people around him as well. They're all a family; it's like going to visit for Christmas. He's an artist I admire incredibly, and being able to have such a great relationship with him is inspiring. It pushes me to do more, to grow into the shoes of a tremendous individual. Simply put, he's just a great person to hang around.

What is one of your favorite memories from the trip? Any special moments?

The memory I cherish the most is a feeling of complete acceptance, of a ready embrace by Christo and everyone that surrounded him. The experience of being brought into a family, of meeting a close-knit group of people sharing the same goals and looking at life in a way that seems intuitive to me, is truly priceless.

I do remember one moment very clearly. While looking at the Big Air Package from the outside, I noticed a door that led to the exterior of the Gasometer. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — why not? I stood on the roof of the Gasometer, shivering and sure of the inevitable onset of pneumonia. Looking out over Oberhausen, I had one of those double-take moments in which I asked myself, "What am I doing here?" And what I remember was that feeling of confusion subsiding and being replaced by a sense of belonging. That moment still sticks with me.

What have you gained from this experience?

The taste of what life might be like three, four, or five years from now. For a weekend, I stepped into a time machine.

World-renowned Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude Partner with NYUAD Institute and Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation to Nurture UAE Talent (press release)