Christo on his monumental floating sculpture for Serpentine Lake
An 83-year-old Christo was late to our interview in February. He was busy traipsing across Kensington Gardens, battling sideways rain, scouting potential locations for The London Mastaba, which was officially unveiled this week in Hyde Park.
The giant public sculpture, tethered to the shallows of the 40-acre recreational Serpentine lake, is named after a flat-roofed structure with sloping sides that originated 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (the word ‘mastaba’ means ‘bench’ in Arabic). It features a pointillism of red and purple barrels, stacked on top of each other. At once alien and ancient, the arresting trapezoid stands like a superyacht against the water, baffling and delighting passers by. Like many of Christo’s imposing works, it has attracted a mixed reception, no small thanks to its sheer, disruptive size.
Collage of The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake), 2018, by Christo, pencil, wax crayon, enamel paint, color photograph by Wolfgang Volz, technical data, map, mylar and tape. Photography: André Grossmann. © 2018 Christo
‘It weighs 600 tonnes, reaches 66ft in the air, is made up of 7,506 barrels,’ Christo explains, impressively reeling off figures as if he’s reading from a script. But its physical size, he hints, is a necessary facet of its conceptual heft. ‘The thing is not the work of art. Togetherness is the work of art. It’s the combination of the Serpentine with the bridge, with the houses and the trees, and all of the people walking around the entity.’
‘You do not see the Mastaba in a silent room,’ he continues. ‘You are among the real wind, the real heat, the real elegance of nature, the real dimensions and the logistics of society, living and moving. It’s not like we’ve just stuck a big sculpture some place random. We’ve decided how it will be seen from the bridge, from the banks of the river, from far away and up-close. All of these things are aesthetical decisions, and from each vantage point it will be different.’
The great outdoors has long fascinated Christo, who has spent much of his career to date creating expressive public work en plein air, alongside his wife Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2009. An exhibition of their work is being displayed concurrently at London’s Stern Pissarro Gallery until 21 July. ‘In the last 58 years, we’ve only realised 22 projects out of 47,’ Christo explains. ‘It may sound like there’s been a lot of frustration; but actually, there hasn’t. If you ask an architect how many buildings they’ve built, compared to how many they’ve tried to build, the ratio will be all the same. We build to the same complexity. Our work requires permission, a little like urban planning.’
Christo also notably self-funds all of his projects, and personally battles with governing bodies in order to receive permission to create the works. Getting the permits for The London Mastaba took over a year. Despite this great personal investment, retirement is not on the cards yet. ‘I have no stool in my studio; I stand for 16-17 hours a day. I do not know how to drive, and I do not like to talk on the telephone. I don’t know a thing about computers. I sketch and devise and create because I enjoy the physicality of it. It’s built in my system. Working makes me want to keep walking – even in the wind and the rain.’ §
The London Mastaba is on view until 23 September. An accompanying exhibition ‘Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018’ runs until 9 September at the Serpentine Galleries. For more information, visit the Serpentine Galleries website