CHRISTO AT THE SERPENTINE, SUMMER NOSTALGIA
Summer nostalgia, 2018, when the sun shone and the Mastaba glistened in the morning light. This was the Serpentine Swimming Club warden-Summer when the most common question asked by passers-by (after “how can I join?”) was “what’s it for?”. For those that missed it (either the Summer, or the Mastaba), the Mastaba was a landmark sculpture, planned for many years, and located that Summer in the Serpentine, Hyde Park. Christo was the artist, well-known across his life for planning and planting landmark sculpture in key locations across the world. You either love him or you hate him. Or are just plain indifferent to his work. I wardened three times across the Summer, as well as swimming numerous times there, and saw (along with many others) the full life-span of the London Mastaba. There was no Christo-briefing for wardens, and so one was forced to improvise. The tower of red barrels with the white stripe was clearly not ‘for’ anything; it was art. “It’s art, innit?” was the obvious answer, but revealing nothing, being a bit rude, a bit patronising, and not a good way to be an ambassador for the club. “Selfie-stop…” I said distractedly one morning, as I saw a couple of people swim up to it with their water-proof (I hope) cameras to take smiling pictures to save, post and cherish – I (heart) the Mastaba one seemed to signal. I talked to some people about other Christo projects that came to mind – wrapping kilometres of coastline in New South Wales in plastic, wrapping the Reichstag building in Berlin in the 1990s (I was there, I remember it well – Berlin had something of a spontaneous ‘wrap public objects’ thing going in the Summer of 1995), wrapping the Pont-Neuf in Paris… Talk of aesthetics soon turned to talk of single-use plastics, one inquisitor asking how the barrels would be recycled after the sculpture came down. Answer to this, I had not, not even a thought. But it made me think. I thought of how the New South Wales coastline wrapping might have migrated to the Garbage Patch State in the Pacific Ocean, but beyond that, I was stumped, well out of my crease with Adam Gilchrist, at his prime, keeping wicket.
Although it wasn’t my job to know how art-works are recycled, this was to me to be a novel question. I imagined the living rooms of well-heeled Kensington households having their own a single red-white striped barrel - ex-Mastaba fragment – poised at an angle, in the study, end-up, supporting a German angle-poise lamp, in the toilet, as a base for a toilet-roll Mastaba playfully made by the children… Would this be artwork, or memento? Subsequently I learned of at least one artist, Michael Landy, who made a performance piece of disposing of all of his possessions – recycling must be involved in some way there I thought. In line with the toilet-roll Mastaba thought, I encouraged one couple from Israel (having fun on holiday) to come back with a couple of bags of toilet rolls and make their own miniature one on the bank of the Serpentine. I hoped they would then take smiling selfies next to it...
The thing itself was BIG. A flat-topped pyramid typical of the ancient Middle-East, typical of desert surroundings, mysteriously plooped into the Serpentine, in the duck poo, seemingly bisecting the length of the lake, seemingly occupying much of its width adjacent to the Serpentine Swimming Club. Christo himself said that the swimmers would probably have the best view of it. Too right; I’m not sure if it was the best view, it was certainly the most imposing view . Swimming in the longer track outside the buoyed area, the Mastaba was a giant that had to be negotiated. In one Summer race, the gap between Mastaba and buoys formed a pinch-point which added excitement as swimmers bumped and jostled through the narrow gap. In the annual bridge to bridge race, the oldest race in the Club’s calendar, swimmers were briefed to steer a course “to the left of the art work”.
Across the Summer, I got fond of the Mastaba. It defied explanation without pretension, it was pretty from a distance in the morning sun, it gave a beautiful reflection, and was all-in-all, harmless. A gentle giant. This was my surreal Summer, when life imitated art, and art and swimming were as one. Then at Summer’s end, the Mastaba was dismantled. Was tossed away, as if the Summer of Mastaba love was just a flirtation, meant nothing. I was disturbed by the growing absence, then steadily made sense of its departure – it just was at first ugly, too big, not FOR anything. Then it was OK that it just WAS. Then when it just WAS in the water-scape, it started to disappear and was soon gone. I rationalised – “it was still pretty when it went; if it had stayed, it would have faded, it would have gotten covered in pigeon poo (at the top) and duck poo (at the bottom) – better to depart when still in glory…”
Not everyone liked the Mastaba, not everyone liked its seeming pointlessness. Some pointed to how the money spent in putting it in place, maintaining it, taking it down, could have been better spent in a lot of different ways. Some were overwhelmed by it; some were underwhelmed. Some saw the arrogance of the arts, some the fecklessness of the Parks authority. I don’t think anyone graffiti’d it, though. In the end, it came and went, and the London Parks authority have had their ikonic art work forever photographically documented – Christo was here. It was an act of vandalism, some said. Christo wasn’t helpful when asked what it was about – he said it was to help people stop and think. It did that, for sure. The Serpentine Swimming Club featured in many of the photos of the Mastaba that Summer, and it did make people stop and think. And some to ask the warden “what’s it for?”