Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The London Mastaba
Christo (1935–2020) and his late wife Jeanne-Claude (1935–2009) are among the world’s most celebrated artists, known for their ambitious, large-scale works of art that alter both the physical form and visual appearance of sites for a short period of time, before returning environments to their original states.
The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake), a temporary sculpture made of colourful stacked barrels, was the artists’ first major public work in the UK and the final outdoor project to be completed in Christo’s lifetime. The sculpture floated on the Serpentine Lake for just over 3 months within the iconic landscape of Hyde Park. The sculpture was funded solely by the artist and realised with thanks to The Royal Parks.
Its geometric form took inspiration from ancient mastabas – benches with two vertical sides, two slanted sides and a flat top – which originate from the first urban civilisations of Mesopotamia.
The mastaba is an extraordinary form – for me, more beautiful than the pyramid because the pyramid has four sloping sides, while the mastaba has two inclined sides and the other two are vertical. It’s a different vision of height from different angles, different lines … It’s a movement, a burst of strength. When you’re in a lateral position and you look at the diagonal walls, you feel that the whole structure is going to explode. It is, above all, the result of a balance of forces.
The exhibition Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958 –2018 at the Serpentine Galleries offered new perspectives on Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s career to the large-scale, wrapped and fabric-based works for which they are best known. It traced the origins of their use of barrels, which began with wrapped paint cans and barrels and the artists’ first temporary public installation in Cologne Harbour in 1961. The Serpentine show provided a rich context for The London Mastaba with drawings, photographs and scale-models for unrealised barrel projects at sites including the Suez Canal (1967) and MoMA, New York (1968), and plans for Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s most ambitious sculpture yet in the Middle East, which was first conceived in 1977 and remains yet unrealised.
‘The colours will transform with the changes in the light and its reflection on the Serpentine Lake will be like an abstract painting’.
The London Mastaba consisted of 7,506 horizontally stacked barrels on a floating platform, 20m in height, 30m wide x 40m long. Standard 55-gallon barrels were fabricated and painted for the sculpture. The sides of the barrels, visible on the top and on the two slanted walls of the sculpture, were red and white. The ends of the barrels, visible on the two vertical walls, were blue, mauve and a different hue of red. The sculpture’s floating platform was made of interlocking high-density polyethylene (HDPE) cubes and was held in place with 32 6-tonne anchors. The barrel-supporting substructure consisted of scaffolding and a steel frame that connected to the floating platform. The sculpture’s total weight was 600 metric tonnes and its footprint took up approximately 1% of the total surface area of the lake.
The proposal for the temporary sculpture included an ecological survey to ensure no damage to the lake or its surroundings. The Royal Parks worked very closely with Christo and his team on this project and as a result The Serpentine Lake benefited from substantial investment after the sculpture was gone. This included ecological improvements on Serpentine Island and creating new habitats, including terrestrial invertebrate habitat creation, waterfowl refuges, heron baskets and bird and bat boxes. Works to improve conditions in the lake, including litter clearance and the re-treatment of Phoslock on the lakebed, to reduce the growth of harmful algae, were scheduled to take place at a time to cause minimal disruption to wildlife and habitats. All construction materials were certified as having low environmental impact to preserve the ecosystem of the lake. While some equipment and materials, such as scaffolding, was rented and were returned, the other materials were removed and industrially recycled in the UK following the project.
The sculpture was paid for entirely by the artist and also presented a unique opportunity for enhancements to the conservation area and associated wildlife. As with all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects, The London Mastaba was funded through the sale of Christo’s original works of art. No public money was used and Christo does not accept sponsorship.
The Serpentine Mobile Tours, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, offered visitors the opportunity to discover more about the exhibition, the sculpture and Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s practice through new audio, video and text content. It also featured an interactive map to guide visitors between the various Serpentine sites: Serpentine Gallery, Serpentine Pavilion, Serpentine North Gallery and The London Mastaba.
The London Mastaba can also be experienced in virtual reality via the Acute Art app for free. Users can reach an elevation of 30m to look down on the temporary sculpture from a bird’s eye view and see it virtually at different times of day, from sunrise to sunset. Visit the Acute Art Museum on Steam or HTC Viveport for the full interactive experience.