LONDON — In one sense, “The London Mastaba,” a temporary floating sculpture by Christo newly installed in Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lake, is about nothing. Like much of Christo’s work it is purely a visual phenomenon meant to be experienced, as opposed to a vessel by which to communicate layers of meaning or an agenda, and much of the accompanying exhibition at the Serpentine galleries, along with the press release is spent detailing the sculpture’s physical particulars. All coverage is thus obliged to parrot the dimensions and specifications: 7,506 horizontally stacked, brightly colored barrels on a platform of interlocking high-density polyethylene (HDPE), 65.5 feet high, 190 feet long at its widest, weighing 600 tons, and covering about 1% of the lake’s surface area.
As a civic work of art, its raison d’être is its interaction with the surrounding landscape and every individual encountering its enormous physicality. Christo further downplays the presence of any inherent meaning of his product, saying “all interpretations welcome;” the meaning is within each individual.
Except that it is impossible to approach a Christo without the weight of his personality, political experiences and beliefs, and an enormous back catalogue of iconic and famous works preceding the experience. Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude were born on the same day in 1935 in Bulgaria and Morocco respectively. His mother was a secretary at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia and enrolled him in private art lessons. Christo eventually escaped the Stalinist-era regime to Paris, where he met Jeanne-Claude, beginning a lifelong artistic collaboration in 1961 until her death in 2009, creating temporary works that changed public space, usually on an extremely large and colorful scale. For example, in 1983 they surrounded 11 islands in Biscayne Bay, Florida with millions of square feet of floating pink fabric. In 1995, they similarly wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany. Contrasting with the austerity and conservatism of communist Bulgaria, the Parisian art scene was to Christo “decadent,” and we may read the duos emphasis on form, militantly rigorous attitude towards production, and their civic interaction as a deliberate reaction to this. Notably all projects have been self-funded, free from state or official intervention, and made with recyclable materials, with the site returned to normal following deconstruction. For “The London Mastaba,” Christo is renting the Serpentine water from The Royal Parks and contributing to the upkeep of the grounds.
As detailed in Christo & Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958–2018, the accompanying exhibition showing Christo’s preparatory drawings for the pair’s creations (which offers a fascinating insight into their working methods), “The London Mastaba” returns to some of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s earlier work intervening in public spaces using oil barrels. In 1958, he began wrapping and stacking them, in 1962 barricading the rue Visconti in Paris with “Wall of Oil Barrels,” mirroring/mocking the Berlin Wall, which went up one year prior. Like Ai Weiwei, Christo’s personal backstory and political experiences have long been entwined closely with his practice, but while Ai Weiwei’s political agenda is clearly prescribed in his work, Christo denies any deliberate thematic content, making it simultaneously about nothing and everything at once.
“Mastaba,” from the Arabic name for a bench, often of stone, relates to ancient Egyptian tombs. Certainly this sculpture mimics the traditional trapezoid shape, but thematically the single name opens the work up to innumerable interpretations. Some may consider the size and singular monumentality an echo of fascist structures. The link to oil alone points to a highly inflammatory ongoing political hot potato. That the work appears to be whatever you want it to be is itself democratic, even overtly populist.
So what of the experience of the “Mastaba?” Its brilliant mauve, blue, and red colors contrast starkly with the green summer grass and foliage of the parks, some would say distastefully so. Others may really dig the alarming contrast. On my visit, a hot weekend in late June, Hyde Park was packed, with the Serpentine Lake filled with rented paddle boats bobbing around it. As Christo notes, the experience differs between your view from the bridges, a glimpse of it from afar, or if your boat has crashed into the base. It is certainly impactful and reaches a wide audience regardless of whether individuals specifically went to view it or not. Entry is free (though this is the case with all Serpentine exhibitions), and it is environmentally friendly and posits London as the latest recipient — and a UK first — of a unique piece from this world-renowned artist.
For curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, acquiring this sculpture has obviously been a careful negotiation between many public bodies and represents a coup for London tourism. What’s not to like? Personally, I found a certain inevitability in it: of its intrusive vastness imposed on the people, for all its supposed populist intent. That made it difficult to warm to.
Christo & Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958–2018 and Christo & Jeanne-Claude: The London Mastaba are on view at the Serpentine Gallery and Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park until September 23.