The Artist Christo Floats a 661-Ton Installation on London’s Serpentine Lake

The London Mastaba, which uses more than 7,000 barrels and reaches 66 feet into the air, was originally conceived in 1958.
Christo sculpture London Mastaba

Courtesy Wolfgang Volz

“What on Earth is that?” one immediately wonders when seeing Bulgarian-born U.S. artist Christo’s latest work floating on The Serpentine lake in London. The answer, “mastaba,” isn’t all too helpful either.

Going by its full name, The London Mastaba is Christo’s first large-scale work in Britain. The sculpture features 7,506 plastic barrels piled neatly on top of each other, climbing at 60-degree angles either side to 66 feet high. The 55-gallon barrels are supported by an internal steel scaffolding system that sits atop a floating high-density polyethylene platform. Overall, the installation stretches 90 feet by 130 feet at its base, covering one percent of the lake.

Christo and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, came up with the mastaba concept back in 1958. (The etymology of the term “mastaba” dates back even further: In ancient Egypt, a mastaba described an “eternal house,” an often-trapezoidal tomb made from brick.) Christo’s works often lay in waiting, consigned to the sketchbook for decades until the opportunity to realize them comes along. In 1962, Christo and Jean-Claude constructed a ten-barrel-high piece in Paris, blockading the Rue Visconti. Five years later, unrealized plans for much larger iterations would’ve seen a 303-barrel pyramid perched on Lake Michigan and a 500,000-barrel installation stretching across the Suez Canal.

Christo sculpture London Mastaba

The barrels were fabricated and painted by Christo: red and white striped on the side, and blue, mauve, and a different hue of red at the ends. These vibrant colors make the sculpture impossible to miss against the green backdrop of Hyde Park, while also shimmering in the lake’s reflection. Courtesy Wolfgang Volz


“Christo had always wanted to do the Mastaba on a lake,” Serpentine Galleries artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist tells Metropolis. “It was really important for Christo to do something in London and it had always been our dream to do something with The Serpentine lake. When I met Christo two years ago after a speech of his at the gallery, we stood on the Serpentine Bridge and he pointed to that very spot [where the mastaba resides now].”

“Christo was convinced that this was the scale it had to be. There were no discussions, he was very clear.” For Obrist, the project was also about bringing art to the people. “Many visitors to the park don’t go to the museum, they don’t see so much art. It’s important to give it to everyone. There are no doors to The London Mastaba, you can just stumble upon it.”

The London Mastaba will stand until September 23, 2018. But that won’t be its swan song. Another version, ten times bigger than London’s, is planned for Abu Dhabi. When that will happen, though, remains to be seen.

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Categories: Arts + Culture

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