Over the course of a storied and sometimes controversial career, Bulgarian-born environmental artist Christo — working alongside his late wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, until her death in 2009 — has wrapped, draped, hung, stretched, swathed, swaddled, unfurled, set things afloat and anchored over 3,000 umbrellas to the ground in two different countries.
For his first undertaking since 2016's transcendent "Floating Piers" at Lake Iseo in Lombardy, Italy, the 83-year-old artist is back in full-on float mode. And the result appears nothing short of bewitching.
Titled "The London Mastaba," the installation — Christo's first large-scale work in the United Kingdom — takes the form of a truncated oil barrel pyramid set afloat in the middle of the Serpentine, a manmade lake in Hyde Park popular with birders, boaters and swimmers. (The Serpentine Lido is home to the U.K.'s oldest swim club.) The installation — totally self-financed, as is the norm with Christo, who eschews public funds and sponsorships in favor of unchallenged artistic freedom — was unveiled earlier this month and will be on display through Sept. 23. It coincides with a retrospective of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's early work with barrels at the nearby Serpentine Galleries.
The installation is striking: 7,506 55-gallon oil drums — ends all painted red, blue and mauve — have been horizontally stacked within a hulking framework of steel scaffolding that rises just over 65 feet above the lake. The sculpture itself is positioned atop a floating high-density polyethylene platform that's tethered to the bottom of the Serpentine with 32 anchors. This kaleidoscopic trapezoid — a plus-sized prism, essentially — weighs a total of 600 tons and has been likened to, among other things, "a newly arrived mothership from an alien planet" and a "giant geometric bath toy afloat on tepid waters."
Best known for working with brightly hued fabrics, Christo and Jeanne-Claude used stacked barrels as a medium in their pointedly political work of the early 1960s. It's this work that's featured at the concurrent exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery.
Most of the couple's later output, conceived to wield maximum visual impact on a monumental scale, is markedly apolitical and has no deeper meaning. "We want to create works of art of joy and beauty, which we will build because we believe it will be beautiful," Jeanne-Claude said in 2002.
As the New York Times reports, "The London Mastaba" acts as something of a test-run for a similar, barrel-based sculpture rising eight times as high that Christo has been dreaming of erecting in the Abu Dhabi desert for decades. Meaning "stone bench" in Arabic, the word "mastaba" describes the generous-sized tombs with flat roofs and sloping walls that were common across ancient Egypt some 6,000 years ago. Appropriately, the multi-colored now floating monolith in Hyde Park is the same height as the Great Sphinx of Giza.
"For three months, the London Mastaba will be a part of Hyde Park's environment in the centre of London," says Christo in a press statement. "The colors will transform with the changes in the light and its reflection on the serpentine lake will be like an abstract painting."
"The London Mastaba will be absolutely free to the public — no tickets, no reservations and no owners," he adds. "It will belong to everyone (until it's gone)."
A boon for park ecology?
Like with past projects by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, most immense in scope and size, it's difficult not to ponder the environmental impact of "The London Mastaba."
The sculptural installation is, ultimately, an event, a production, a happening, an old-fashioned spectacle … and a relatively short-lived one at that. Usually lasting not more than a few days or weeks, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's environmental art draws considerable foot traffic and requires significant resources in terms of both materials and infrastructure. People flock from across the world to immerse themselves in large-scale installations that are ethereal, poetic, majestic — and also to take 5 gazillion photos. In this sense, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are pioneers in the trend of ephemeral environments specifically engineered for Generation Instagram.
Since "The London Mastaba" is being staged in the middle of world capital, the same concerns that tend to arise from far-flung Christo and Jeanne-Claude projects in ecologically sensitive locales don't necessarily apply.
Still, the installation is located on a lake, in a major urban park, that's home to a fair amount of wildlife, particularly waterfowl. The Royal Parks, the charity that oversees Hyde Park along with neighboring Kensington Gardens and six other urban green spaces in London, explains in a press release that "The London Mastaba" will tread lightly on and, in the end, benefit park ecology:
The artwork also presents an opportunity to enhance the conservation area and associated wildlife of Hyde Park. An Ecological Enhancement Strategy was developed with The Royal Parks, which is in accordance with National and Local planning policy. In addition to ensuring that there will be no negative ecological impact on the lake, the surrounding park or its wildlife, a number of substantial investments will be made in the park as a direct result of the project, including ecological works on the Serpentine Island, the creation of new habitats for birds and bats, litter clearance of the Serpentine Lake and re-treatment of the Phoslock system that protects the lake from algal bloom.
What's more, all materials used in the construction of the sculpture, which covers approximately 1 percent of the lake's surface, are certified as having "low environmental impact to preserve the ecosystem of the lake," according to the Royal Parks. Building materials that weren't rented locally will be recycled within the U.K.
In his rather lukewarm review, Guardian art critic Adrian Searle notes that the Serpentine's resident ducks, geese and swans don't seem all that bothered by the crowd-drawing new addition. "The birds look unconcerned by the 83-year-old's creation," he writes. "Fish, often attracted to underwater structures, doubtless swim and lurk underneath."
An 'incredible, unforgettable journey'
"The London Mastaba" didn't exactly go up overnight even though it's decidedly dialed-back compared to past Christo and Jeanne-Claude installations.
As the New York Times reports, after Christo raised 3 million pounds in funding through the sale of his own art, it took him and his team a solid year to secure permits and the requisite backing from The Royal Parks. From there, it took two-and-a-half months to construct and install the sculpture.
The construction process, at least in the beginning stages, was slow-moving largely due to the fact that all the materials had to be transported to the lake via a fleet of more than 70 trucks, which had to travel at a glacial speed due to heavy pedestrian traffic in the park. The below video shows Christo's team putting the sculpture into its final position.
"Each work of ours is like an expedition, something incredibly invigorating," explains Christo to the Times. "I love to be here with the workers. I like that process. That journey is so incredible, unforgettable."
Also similar to past works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, "The London Mastaba" has proven divisive. In his review, Searle remarks that the "overall feel is totemic, literal, repetitive." One commenter on design website Dezeen opined that "this is closer to pollution than art to me. I can only imagine what the carbon footprint was to manufacture and install this monstrosity just to impose his ego on the landscape."
"I don't like it … the reason I come this way is because of the nature," a woman walking along the lake was overheard saying into her phone by the Guardian just prior to the installation's proper unveiling.
To this, Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and current chairman of the Serpentine Galleries, responds: "If you designed your life to avoid controversy you would be back in the stone age. It will be interesting to hear what that person says in two months … it could be ‘I've always liked it'."
Bloomberg goes on to mention the lasting impact that The Gates, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's seminal 2005 work in Central Park, had on the Big Apple. That installation ran for a mere 16 days.
"People from around the world came but also people didn't think of the city as a place where culture and art and innovation takes place so the impact goes on for a very long time." He adds: "London has a reputation and this [The Mastaba] enhances that reputation of being open and edgy and willing to try new things."
Criticism aside, Christo, who Forbes recently hailed as an unsung "visionary architect," already has his sights set on a bigger and better oil barrel mastaba in Abu Dhabi, which if completed as planned, would be the world's largest artistic sculpture.
"I am a very stubborn man and I hope to do it … it has been over 40 years but I very much believe I can," Christo tells the Guardian. "It is an unstoppable urge."
Inset image: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Serpentine Galleries