Until 9 September 2018
Christo and his late Moroccan wife and partner Jeanne-Claude have been working with barrels since 1977 and this is the first public sculpture by him to be erected in London. He is primarily famous for wrapping things up, like a section of coastline in Australia, The Wrapped Pont Neuf in Paris, The Wrapped Reichstag in Berlin and Wrapped Trees in Riehan in Switzerland, but has always been playing around with barrels, even wrapping them in various sizes, from full-scale down to some the size of a can of beans. His installations include The Gates in Central Park, comprising some 7,000 gates with their free-hanging saffron-coloured fabric panels,which seem like a golden river appearing and disappearing through the bare branches of the trees in New York in 2005, a Running Fence in California and, most recently Floating Piers on Lake Iseo in Italy in 2016. He thinks on a grander scale than any other sculptor, apart from maybe Claes Oldenburg, whose Giant Lipsticks in Piccadilly Circus surrounding Eros was never realised, but Christo’s amazing Mastaba was. A ‘mastaba’ was an Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian, flat-roofed, pyramidical tomb, or technically, a trapezoidal prism, from the Arabic word for ‘stone bench’; only this one comprises 7,506 horizontally-stacked red, blue, mauve and white barrels, specially fabricated and secured to a floating platform. The effect is at once arresting and it changes a familiar landscape into something extraordinary. On the ‘launch’ day itself, it was sunny with a few fair-weather cumulus, and the colours of the Mastaba transformed with the changes in the light and reflections in the lake, which the artist hoped would be like an abstract painting. He hoped right.
Back on dry land, the Serpentine is staging the first major exhibition of their work since 1979, and focuses on the sixty-year history of them working with barrels. Christo has been working on a project for 40 years, which is even larger than the one in London. The Mastaba (Project for United Arab Emirates) in Abu Dhabi, will be a mainly orange mosaic of 410,000 oil barrels, rising to 150 metres and it will not only be the largest sculpture in the world, it will also actually overshadow the Great Pyramid of Giza by 3.4 meters, if he can get the permission to build it. In comparison The London Mastaba is ‘only’ 20 metres high and sits on a platform 30m x 40m. Working drawings, photographs, models and collages explain the complexity of his work, originals of which he sells off to help subsidise his next project. The current sculpture has been totally funded by himself, with no sponsors, although Bloomberg Philanthropies helped support the exhibition. Amongst other realised projects using barrels, was a barricade across the Rue Visconti on the Left Bank in Paris, although permission was not applied for. As he recalls, ‘What I remember is Jeanne-Claude doing a lot of explaining to the police to allow it to stay in place for a few hours. She was very forceful.’ One outside MOMA in New York never materialised, and a much larger dam blocking the Suez Canal never saw the light of day, for obvious reasons. At 82 years-old, the Bulgarian artist is a sprightly, modest man, with an engaging smile, immense energy and colossal talent. The Mayor of London, The Royal Parks, under the Chairmanship of Loyd Grossman and the Serpentine Galleries, all collaborated to enable this outstanding landmark work to grace London for the Summer months.