This summer, The Serpentine in Hyde Park is playing host to an extraordinary sculptural event. The London Mastaba is the latest public artwork by the artist Christo, known for creating huge sculptures in fabric in both architectural and natural sites around the world. Working with his wife, the late Jeanne-Claude, his body of work is both ephemeral and epic, creating artworks that are magical as well as being mind-boggling feats of engineering.
Made up of 7,506 barrels stacked horizontally on a floating platform, The London Mastaba coincides with the Serpentine Galleries’ retrospective of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work. The exhibition reveals a fascinating insight into the vision and process behind many of the couple’s large-scale sculptures, with original sketches and plans for pieces such as Surrounded Islands and the famous Wrapped Reichstag on show.
The London Mastaba is the culmination of a long obsession with barrels as a building block. The word Mastaba is an Arabic word for bench given to the seats found outside homes in ancient Mesopotamia. A much earlier work by Christo and Jeanne-Claude used rusted stacked barrels to very different effect. For this work, each 55 gallon barrel was specially made and painted for the project – the sides painted in red and white, with the exposed ends in red, blue and mauve. The colours were selected to interact with the ever-changing London sky, the surface of the Serpentine and the park around it. “The colours will transform with the changes in the light and its reflection on the Serpentine Lake will be like an abstract painting,” he said recently of the finished project.
Colour is one of the key defining factors that distinguish the work of the couple. Their large-scale interventions in the landscape often use a single, powerful colour to create their effects. The Floating Piers, which graced Lake Iseo in Italy in the summer of 2016, swathed a small island in ‘daihlia-yellow’ fabric, linking it to the shore by a number of floating walkways.
In a recent interview with AnOther magazine, the artist confided that although colour is a key component of the works, it is usually the element which is decided upon last. Speaking about The Umbrellas, in which hundreds of yellow umbrellas were installed in a Californian valley, and blue umbrellas in a valley in Japan, he says, “We wanted the work to take place in the summer. In California the grass by then is burnt yellow in the sun, while in Japan their summers are wet and the rivers swell with blue water. The colour of the work is the last element we decide, and is picked by how we view the environment.”