Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958–2018 @ the Serpentine

This is a wonderful exhibition. I walked round it with a huge smile on my face and left with a spring in my step. What inventiveness, humour, precision planning, vision and persistence!


You may have noticed or seen news reports of the immense sculpture made of painted oil barrels which was erected on the Serpentine in London at the start of the summer.

The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park (2016-18) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park (2016-18) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

It is titled The London Mastaba and is the work of the modern artist, Christo, born 1935 in Bulgaria (and so 83 years-old).

Since the 1970s Christo and his late-wife, Jeanne-Claude, have created a series of dramatic and well-publicised site-specific installations.

The most memorable (for me) were:

  • erecting a curtain of orange cloth across a valley in California
  • wrapping the Pont Neuf in Paris in golden-yellow fabric (1984)
  • wrapping the Berlin Reichstag in polypropylene fabric, covered by an aluminum in (1995)

Christo and Jeanne-Claude always refused sponsorship or contributions of any kind to their vast installations, instead raising money themselves by selling off sketches, plans, designs and other elements connected with the projects.

The Christo presence at the Serpentine this summer is in two parts:

  1. The vast Mastaba edifice itself, positioned in the east half of the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, which will remain in place until 23 September.
  2. And a fascinating retrospective of Christo’s career being held in the main Serpentine Gallery, with particular reference to his enduring fascination with oil drums, as symbols of modern civilisation and for their sculptural and artistic potential.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958–2018

Part one – Christo and barrels

I grew up in a petrol station. Well, in the house immediately behind a combined village store, petrol station and tyre bay. The smell of petrol, rubber, oil and all their associated products are part of my childhood. The massive shed-cum-warehouse at the back of the house stored hundreds of tyres, stacked vertically, reeking of rubber, especially when it rained and the leaky roof let the rain get in and made the tyres black, wet and shiny. Oily puddles were everywhere.

So I warm to Christo’s love of oil barrels. There is something primeval about them. Our civilisation, the entire world economy, is built on them. No oil – no cars, lorries, buses, lorries, planes, ships. No transport of people or food. No electricity. No light. No internet. No blogs.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (19 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 Hugo Glendinning

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (19 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 Hugo Glendinning

So I have deep autobiographical, and intellectual-economic reasons for being fascinated by displays to do with oil.

But there’s also something about ‘the barrel’ – as a shape, as an artefact – which is oddly picturesque.

Put it another way: the combination of the machine-repetition of hundreds, thousands, millions of identikit barrels – with the way that each one is then rendered individual by its unique collection of scratches, rust and dents makes them almost like human beings. Same basic model. A thousand variations, the dents of individual lives.

And in fact barrels do come in quite a combination of different sizes, makes and designs.

All this makes barrels a perfect material for artists from the schools of Arte Povera and Minimalism, committed to using industrial products and by-products, and to exploring the aesthetic impact of minimal combinations of simple, everyday materials.

Because of my childhood, because I like minimalism and the geometric in art, because I like the modern and urban, and I’m interested in political and environmental symbolism – I didn’t need any persuading to find oil drums, in and of themselves, beautiful objects, and that arranging them in patterns can be strangely attractive and beguiling.

Christo began with pots, apparently. Arriving in Paris in the late 1950s, he could only afford a small studio and became intrigued by the potency of paint pots. Pots plain, spattered with paint, or wrapped in cloth.

And then you can arrange them. One on top of each other, into little towers. Several towers next to each other. Some matt, some wrapped in fabric, some tied and colourised – some spattered. Experiment. Combine. Play.

Paint pots by Christo. Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the w, Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Paint pots by Christo. Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the w, Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Reminiscent of Jasper Johns’s paint pots and brushes of the same period. The joy of the everyday!

Painted bronze (Ballantine Ale) by Jasper Johns, 1960

Painted bronze (Ballantine Ale) by Jasper Johns (1960)

Then Christo moved into a larger studio, which happened to be near a loading yard. Full of barrels. Full barrels, empty barrels, new barrels, knackered old barrels, barrels of petrol, barrels of oil. (This explains the years given in the title to the exhibition – 1958 right up to the present day. Because it covers 60 years of Christo being fascinated by barrels and barrel opportunities.) Now he could ask the yard owners if he could take the oldest, pretty much useless barrels – and they were happy to get rid of them.

Following on from little towers of pots, Christo was now in a position to make bit towers of oil barrels! The exhibition includes some examples of those early ‘barrel columns’ in the flesh, as well as stylish black-and-white photos of the imaginative barrel combos he made back in the early 1960s, blown up to wall-size.

Oil barrel columns by Christo (1962) Photo by Jean-Dominique Lajoux

Oil barrel columns by Christo (1962) Photo by Jean-Dominique Lajoux

Cool, aren’t they? Vaguely Heath-Robinsonish. Or like something off The Clangers. Humorous. Or, more seriously, they could be totem poles, the totems of our tribe, the gas-guzzling, fuel-hungry tribe which is destroying the world. Misguiding spirits. Hollow memorials, ringing false.

Quickly, Christo realised you could not only pile them on top of each other, but build things out of barrels. Most obviously – walls! As early as 1962 he constructed a cheeky installation using them to block a side street in Paris.

Wall of Barrels - The Iron Curtain, Rue Visconti, Paris, 1961-62 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: Jean-Dominique Lajoux © 1962 Christo

Wall of Barrels – The Iron Curtain, Rue Visconti, Paris, 1961-62 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: Jean-Dominique Lajoux © 1962 Christo

Photos of this installation are in a room with several barrel sculptures and texts (in French) explaining the way that these barrel walls can hold, contain, limit, and block. And can be brightly coloured. Like the pixellations in old colour printing. Like Seurat’s dots. They eat up all kinds of references.

Beside the assemblages of pots and barrel totem poles and tripods, there are stylish sketches of how the Wall of Barrels could have been deployed as a fashion statement or design feature in the snazzy world of the early 1960s: at a gas station, on the ground floor of an apartment block, in your living room – if any architect had been mad enough to take up the idea.

Mur d'assemblage dans un station-service by Christo (1962)

Mur d’assemblage dans un station-service by Christo (1962)

If you can build walls of them on land – why not – floating barrels? Plans for a floating platform of barrels date back as far as the late 1960s, when Christo hoped to float a pyramid of barrels on Lake Geneva. In 1967 there were plans to build a floating pyramid of barrels on Lake Michigan.

Construction (Project for Lake Michigan – 1968) by Christo. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: André Grossmann, © 1967 Christo

Construction (Project for Lake Michigan – 1968) by Christo. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: André Grossmann, © 1967 Christo

Like the best minimalist art works, arrangements of oil barrels are both absolutely everyday objects and packed with meanings:

1. There is something seriously aesthetically about this plan for a floating pyramid of barrels. It is a beautiful object – severe, planned, organised and arranged to display a deeply repetitive pattern, but pattern with variations, of texture and colour.

2. At the same time there is something highly symbolic and meaningful, in a medieval allegorical kind of way – a riff on the age-old proverb about oil and water never mixing.

3. The image is also rich with serious socio-political overtones, a sardonic reflection on our civilisation’s prioritisation of oil over water – especially in light of the kind of disastrous oil spillages we used to get in the late 1960s and 1970s.

4. And, then again, there’s something purely cheeky and comic about it. It’s the kind of thing Bart Simpson might suggest.

‘Hey, let’s make a floating pyramid out of oil barrels!!’
‘Yeah, cool, Bart.’

In the corner of the main gallery is a smaller version of this pyramid of barrels – only one barrel deep, so more of a barrel triangle.

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo by the author

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo by the author

Looking at this brings us up to date, as it were, and introduces us to the long-gestating idea of The Mastaba!

Part two – Christo and the Mastaba

If you look at it and ponder it and walk around it and think about it, the nature of ‘the barrel’ places certain limits on what you can build with it.

You can have a vertical wall – like the one blocking the street in Paris – because the round surfaces pile very neatly on top of each other – but only so long as you have something to brace the edges of the wall against. Without two walls to hold the sides in place, a rectangular arrangement of barrels would simply fall apart. If you want your barrels to be freestanding, the most stable arrangement is the triangle, as in the arrangement above.

But the facade is a problem. The tops and bottoms, or fronts and backs, of the barrels, the round ‘faces’ – are unavoidably flat. No way are they going to slope in any direction. Not unless you set each successive layer of barrels a set distance back from the one below – a foot, say, or half a barrel length. This would create a very sharp, stepped, zigzag effect. And it would have the drawback of being contrived – of not emerging naturally from the nature of the material.

And so, the logical conclusion of really thinking what you can build with barrels is the mastaba shape – two sides sloping gently with the natural slope created by piling rows of cylindrical objects on top of each other, each successive layer one barrel less wide than the one below. But the front and back faces of the pile rigidly flat and vertical, and so creating a straight, vertical wall.

Christo’s been working on trying to build just such a massive shape since the late 1960s. In the 1970s a great deal of planning and architect’s drawings were made to erect a massive mastaba painted orange to be sited amid the undulating sands of the United Arab Emirates.

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo by the author

There are photos of the location, and group photos of the Arab engineers and designers who collaborated on the plans. There are detailed sketches and draft designs. There’s even a scale model of the enormous result, complete with tiny stick humans scattered around the base.

The Mastaba by Christo (1979) Enamel paint, wood, sand and cardboard

The Mastaba by Christo (1979) Enamel paint, wood, sand and cardboard. Photo by the author

What with the desert and all, it’s hard to miss the blatant reference to the Egyptian pyramids. Mausoleums to dead tyrants. ‘Look on my work, ye mighty, and despair!’ as future generations will look back on our fossil fuel civilisation, and not with affection.

But it was not to be (there’s no explanation in the exhibition why the plan for a massive mastaba in the desert didn’t come off, but IChristo’s career has been full of ambitious plans which never quite make it).

Instead, the last room in the exhibition shows the focus switching to London, where the powers-that-be obviously gave the go-ahead for it to be constructed, and Christo’s team of designers, engineers and architects swept into action – as described here in a welter of sketches, designs and architect’s plans.

The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake) 2018. Pencil, charcoal, wax crayon, enamel paint, hand-drawn map, technical data and tape.

The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake) 2018. Pencil, charcoal, wax crayon, enamel paint, hand-drawn map, technical data and tape.

Conclusions

These images of Christo working with oil barrels, stretching back 50 years or more, indicate the enduring centrality of a lifelong interest in mass-produced industrial artefacts and what can be done with them, in their sculptural, architectural and aesthetic possibilities.

I used to associate Christo with wrapping buildings in foil, but for the rest of my life he will be ‘the man who was obsessed with barrels’.

The antiquity of some the sketches – dating back to the 1960s – indicate the incredibly long lead time required for all of his projects, many of which have taken decades to organise and fund, and which give you a real respect for his combination of ambition with dogged determination.

Plenty of time for the ideas themselves to be sketched, played with, and then planned in meticulous detail – all with the kind of safety and engineering requirements which bring in town planners, health and safety officials, engineers and so on.

The exhibition suggests the deep creative commitment required. And then the intensely collaborational nature of the final result.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, 2016-18 Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, 2016-18 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Photo by Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

And that final result? Is rich and strange and puzzling – banal in everyday daylight, strange and haunting at dusk, throwing an endless variety of rippled reflections across the surface of the lake, a statement of… what?

An artistic statement, a political statement, a cultural statement, an environmental statement. All or any of these.

It is the Rorschach test-like nature of his works which I find so liberating. The London Mastaba is a big impressive thing and what you make of it is up to you, a test of your imaginative resources and open-mindedness.

The exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery is FREE and so is the Mastaba. There for anyone to visit and investigate, or just to pull up a deckchair and ponder.

I think it’s wonderful.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

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