The London Mastaba: Christo at the Serpentine

The Serpentine Gallery has become synonymous with treating us to a new Summer Pavilion every year. The year, the structure has been designed by Mexican architect Frida Escobedo and has been created from stacks of concrete roof-tiles. Stylish and austere in the official photographs (but now full of folding chairs and coffee machines) and with a shallow reflective pool of water, in reality it is a wonderful place to grab a drink and catch some shade and whatever breeze there may be in this scorcher of a summer. Escobedo has used these simple materials to create a space based on the courtyard, a feature commonly found in traditional Mexican domestic architecture.

This year in addition to the expected pavilion (and one in Beijing!) if you walk through the park you will also be confronted with the London Mastaba, described by the Guardian as a giant bath toy or an alien mothership which has landed on the Serpentine. It has certainly divided opinions and I was all set to hate it. Why couldn’t we be treated to a wrapped St Paul’s or Somerset House? Instead we get a pile of repainted oil barrels, spoiling the view, and yet…

Seeing the floating 7506 oil barrel sculpture in situ is quite a different experience. It is the largest yet of Christo and Jean-Claude’s realised barrel projects, and in the bold mauve, blue and reds it sits defiantly in the landscape confronting the viewer and demanding a reaction. I actually quite liked it. The odd thing I noticed whilst photographing it is that shape appears to distort as you change view points, making it look as if it is shifting and warping as you move. It’s a curious feeling.

The accompanying show at the Serpentine Gallery is a retrospective of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work with the barrel shape which they first experimented with in 1958, originally with wrapped cans and then progressing to actual barrels at the beginning of the sixties. Piles, towers and wrapped constructions naturally developed into the mastaba form, due to the nature of stacking cylinders. The term originated in Mesopotamia around 6000 years ago and is the Arabic word for bench. As Christo explains

‘The mastaba is an extraordinary form – for me more beautiful than the pyramid… 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.’

In their typically optimistic and grandiose way, the artists suggested barricading the Suez Canal with a ‘Ten Million Oil Barrel Wall’ as a response to the 6 Day war fought by Israel against their neighbours Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Unsurprising this project didn’t happen, but it was a reminder of ‘Iron Curtain – Wall of Barrels’ in the Rue Visconti, Paris in 1962. That, as the name suggests was a protest against the Berlin Wall (newly erected the previous year), the Algerian War raging at the time and Christo’s status as a Bulgarian political refugee. Perhaps Frida Escobedo and Christo’s should be collaborating, as our London skies are filled with airforce one security.

In 1977, the couple proposed the ‘Mastaba, Project for Abu Dhabi’. This is an ongoing project and if it were eventually to be built after over 40 years of planning and consultation, it would be the world’s largest sculpture at 150m high (nearly 8 times the height of the Serpentine installation) and would be taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza. It would also be the couple’s only permanent artwork.

As with all of Christo’s works, The London Mastaba has been self financed through the sale of his original artworks. It will grace the artificial lake until the 23rd of September and is well worth visiting, if only to form your own opinion about the giant bath toy!

The Summer Pavillion, Frida Escobedo.

All text and images © Jonathan Dredge.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Flextiles says:

    I saw it when it was being built – will have to go back now it’s finished!


  2. Reblogged this on Modern Eccentrics and commented:

    Au revoir Christo… Wonderful that the ‘L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped’, in planning since 1962 will go ahead posthumously next year as final monument to Christo and Jean-Claude.


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