“Whenever Christo comes to a city it has a transformative impact,” says Hans Ulrich Obrist, who has curated the first major retrospective of the artist Christo in the UK at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, which will open next Tuesday
The flagship project of the exhibition is already going up outside the gallery, on the Serpentine lake: 7,506 steel barrels in red, white, blue and mauve are being stacked together and, secured by weights, will float in the water. The final shape will be an elongated trapezoid, in an enormous architectural structure called a mastaba.
Dedicated followers of Christo’s works in Abu Dhabi might wonder: hey, wasn’t that supposed to be built here?
In 1979, the Bulgarian-born artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, visited Abu Dhabi at the behest of the French foreign ministry. After eight trips to the country, they conceived the idea of building a mastaba – an Arabic word meaning mud bench – in the Liwa desert. Made from 410,000 barrels, 150 metres high and 330m wide, it would have dwarfed the Egyptian pyramids.
Almost 40 years on, the project has yet to win approval. The artists have not exactly sat around in the meantime. (Christo and Jeanne-Claude collaborated until her death, in 2009.) They created a river through Central Park in New York with 7,503 gates made of saffron-coloured fabric; encircled 11 islands off the coast of Miami in soft folds of durable pink upholstery; and wrapped the entire Reichstag in Berlin in silvery shrouds. It took them 24 years to gain permission for the latter – which gives some perspective to the Abu Dhabi delay. Indeed, Christo has not given up on it, and he maintains close ties to the UAE, overseeing, for example, the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award for young Emirati artists.
But lest you think London has pipped Abu Dhabi to the post, London’s is not the first mastaba either – although it might well prove to be the most famous, at least until it is taken down at the end of the Serpentine’s show in September.
The form’s history is in the Middle East. “Already in the late 1960s Christo and Jeanne-Claude were interested in the earliest civilisations in Mesopotamia, which built early urban settlements with houses and streets,” Obrist says. “Christo was fascinated by banks and benches there, which were called mastabas. These mastabas are designed by two vertical walls, two slanted walls, and a flat top. The bench is part of the exterior of a house.”
Unlike the Egyptian pyramids, which were at times referred to as mastabas, mastabas come from a more domestic lineage: a place for sitting and talking, rather than entombing and enshrining. And they remain in use. When Christo and Jeanne-Claude toured Abu Dhabi in the 1970s, they heard the word still in conversation – a living link to an ancient architecture.
The pair’s interest in the form predated their Abu Dhabi trip. They were already working with steel barrels – a cheap, although monumental material – in the late 1950s. Steel barrels in the shape of a mastaba first appear in 1967, in plans for a floating mastaba on Lake Michigan. That project was never built, and ultimately joined a long list of unrealised mastaba structures: such as one made with 500,000 barrels for the Suez Canal, as a temporary monument on the border between Israel and Egypt in 1967; two 1968 proposals, for the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome and a smaller one for Documenta; and a 1970 project for Houston. This list is peppered with a few successes, such as an indoor mastaba, installed in 1968 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, one at the Fondation Maeght, near Nice, last year, as well as a handful of temporary oil barrel sculptures.
When they visited Abu Dhabi, it became clear that building in the desert allows for extraordinary scale and, anticipating the future rhetoric of the UAE, the Abu Dhabi mastaba was regularly spoken of as the largest sculpture in the world. If built, it would tower over the desert, about the same height as the Washington Monument in DC and, in width, almost the length of the Empire State Building lying on its side. The distinction of being the tallest sculpture in the world remains with the 153m Spring Temple Buddha, completed 10 years ago in Henan, China.
The London mastaba is similar to the proposed Abu Dhabi project, although set on water rather than sand. Christo arranges the barrels to create sprays of colour, and stacks the layers in accordance with a mathematical ratio. Obrist likens it to a Pointillist painting. “It’s somewhere between the digital age and Pointillism,” he says.
“But when I mentioned that to Christo, he pointed out that he does it all by hand, and he paints them by hand, and decides colour by colour. So it’s really constructed like painting – and he did it many many years before the digital age.”
The idea for the London mastaba – less than a 50th the size of the one planned for Abu Dhabi – came when Obrist and Yana Peel invited Christo to speak at their talks marathon on miracles.
“We said it was our dream that something could happen in London in the park or at the gallery, and we looked at all the sites together – the trees, behind the gallery, in front of the gallery,” Obrist says. “All of a sudden, when we crossed from the new Serpentine to the old Serpentine across the bridge, he stopped on the bridge ... and he pointed at exactly the site where the sculpture now is, I mean, 100 per cent the site.”
The floating London mastaba will be accessible by the boats that are rented on the Serpentine and by the swimmers in the lake, but its scale means that one won’t be able to see the whole of the structure from any one vantage point – an effect that would be amplified in Liwa, were it to go ahead.
For Obrist, this inability to capture the full site is part of the magic of the artwork. “It’s related to what [the architect] Rem Koolhaas once said: ‘buildings more and more travel as icons’ ... Rem was saying we need to reintroduce complexity to that discussion. The same thing is true for public art. Public art is always an image.
“But the mastaba is the opposite,” he says. “It’s far more than an exhibit or an event, it’s a very collective experience. People for a long time afterwards talk about it.”
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake) will be at the Serpentine in London to accompany their show, Barrels and the Mastaba 1958-2018, from June 18 to September 23, 2018.
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